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Oil boom brings growing pains to North Dakota town

By Jessica Hopper
Rock Center

Rock Center’s report earlier this week on the jobs boom in North Dakota sparked more than a thousand comments from viewers with some declaring that they were heading to Williston to find work and some Williston locals saying that the jobs boom is good news for the economy, but there are growing pains.

North Dakota’s oil boom has turned the town of Williston into a kind of mecca for job seekers, but with the surge of newcomers and traffic come potholes and ruts in the city’s roads, a severe housing crunch and even stresses on the city’s sewage system. 

Mayor Ward Koeser told NBC News that the population of Williston has doubled in the last five years and that it’s overwhelmed virtually all of the city’s departments.

“We’re very close to the edge.  The intensity with which this has come at us is literally unbelievable,” said Koeser. 


Koeser said the greatest strain on the city has been an influx in truck traffic. The trucks are needed to haul materials to and from the nearly 200 oil rigs and thousands of wells operating in Williston. Williston is situated on the Bakken formation, an oil field that some say will produce the greatest boom in North America since the 1960s.

“Throughout the oil field here in North Dakota, the roads are taking a beating from the heavy truck traffic that’s coming across,” said Joel Wilt, an assistant district engineer for North Dakota’s Department of Transportation. “We are constantly maintaining the roads, fixing potholes and taking care of things like this where we have deep ruts.”

Wilt estimates that each oil rig in Williston uses 2,000 trucks to haul materials like cement, sand, pipes and ceramic beads. The asphalt mix that was laid down on the roads two years ago to protect them was meant to last 20 years and it’s already nearly gone, Wilt said. Intersections have ruts as deep as four inches caused by the force of the trucks when they stop, Wilt said.

“We have to constantly maintain these roads. If we don’t, it will shut down the oil field,” he said.

Shutting down the oil fields isn’t an option.  The oil boom has led to thousands of available jobs in Williston from work on a rig to the need for more teachers, doctors, police officers and restaurant workers to deal with the growing population.

This past summer, the warm weather softened the sub base of the roads and caused holes and ruts to appear. To combat this, Wilt said they've periodically closed the roads and implement load restrictions. They are also working on developing a stronger asphalt mix to withstand the truck traffic.

The trucks also mean that Williston residents are combating something they’re not used to: traffic.

Diane Hagen has lived in the town all of her life and calls the boom an “exciting time” in Williston but acknowledges that the traffic can be a headache.

“The traffic patterns have changed completely in Williston,” she said.  “Everybody waits in line and that’s just the name of the game.”

The influx in the town’s population makes for cramped quarters. People are renting basements in homes or staying in man camps- shipping containers converted into housing units for the workers new to town. 

Mayor Koeser said that one of the most accurate ways to track the city’s population has been to look at how many people the sewage system is serving.

“We believe there’s probably about 23,000 people that we’re servicing based on sewage,” he said.

Making sure the city’s infrastructure, its sewage and water supply, keeps up with its fast paced growth has been a challenge.

“You deal with are you going to make sure that you have sewage capacity.  That’s a pretty basic essential, you know? You can get by without a lot of things, but when you flush your toilet, you want it to work,” Koeser said.

Terry Metzler is a real estate developer and said that Williston is a “utopia” for developers. He said that he is breaking ground so quickly that he has to slow down for the city’s sewage and water systems to catch up.

Metzler recently had a groundbreaking ceremony on 280 acres that his company hopes to turn into a subdivision with houses, apartments and office spaces.

“This is kind of feeling like the pioneers that were originally here,” said Metzler, North Dakota operations manager for Granite Peak, a real estate development company.  “We’re busting some new ground.”

Metzler said there are also plans to build industrial parks, hotels, restaurants and a medical facility in the town.

“In the next five to seven years, we’ll double the size of [the] town,” said Metzler.

Mayor Koeser hopes that even as the town grows, that Williston retains its charm.

“You spend a lot of time focusing on infrastructure, water, sewer, roads and those sorts of things,” Koeser said. “You have to make sure that you spend time on quality of life as well…so that these young people who move here…that they fall in love with the place and they want to stay here.  We want to keep them here.”