"Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over."
That quote has been attributed to Mark Twain - but whether he said it or not, the phrase is certainly being played out in western North Dakota right now.
The battle pits local landowners and businesses against the state of North Dakota and communities in the western part of the state.
And the two sides butted heads at a committee meeting of the State Water Commission Thursday.
Jim Olson reports.
Water sales to the oil industry is a 100-million dollar-a-year industry in western North Dakota. It's something local towns - and private enterprise - have become involved in over the past few years. But the 2011 State Legislature added a new player to the field - the state-subsidized Western Area Water Supply project. The 150-million dollar project is designed to bring quality Missouri River water to small towns and rural residents - maybe 48-thousand people within 20 years. A unique feature of WAWS is how it's financed. WAWS is expected to raise most of its funding through the sale of water to the oil industry - water used in the hydraulic fracturing that's critical to oil extraction in the Bakken region. But the entry of a government-subsidized competitor that has private water sellers - the Independent Water Providers - upset.
(Todd Sando, ND State Engineer) "We are getting lots of phone calls and emails of concern about how the project is moving forward."
And so, on Thursday, several IWP members asked a committee of the State Water Commission to review the plan and cut back on the water sales portion of the project.
(Randy Simpson, Private Water Seller) "I think it's important you take that step now - I'm talking within days not months because it's getting down to it."
(Mike Ames, Agri Industries) "I feel this is wrong. I'm a small businessman. I believe in private enterprise and I feel we're the most efficient provider of frac water in the oil industry."
(Dale Behan, Lindale Pipeline) "I go borrow 13 million dollars to finance my projects and here you come along and finance a fiasco like WAWS and they run over us like we are nothing. That's not the function of government. That's just not right."
(Robert Harms, Independent Water Providers) "That's why this discussion is being held with you this afternoon. We think that ultimately this is where the buck stops - with the Water Commission."
Robert Harms represents the IWP and made the argument that WAWS has grown beyond what it was sold as to state legislators. He says supporters claimed they'd need to sell water for one frack job per day to finance the project.
(Robert Harms, Independent Water Providers) "WAWS currently has the capacity to frac four wells a day."
The attorney for the IWP warned that time was running out to avoid legal action against the project.
(Mike Forman, IWP Attorney) "We would ask that you urgently get involved in this matter as you have and get to a resolution so that we don't have to go different directions to get a resolution from a third party."
But the attorney for WAWS said the issues raised at the Thursday meeting were being addressed by WAWS - and more importantly had been set in law by the legislature.
(Tami Norgard, WAWS Attorney) "I don't think it was contemplated there would be different policies and a new role that the Water Commission would be taking in this situation."
Her comments came after several mayors made their cases for continuing WAWS construction. Watford City's mayor said his community would soon be seven times the population it was a few years back.
(Brent Sanford, Watford City Mayor) "Basically looking at three thousand more individual dwelling units."
Williston's mayor said the project is perhaps the most beneficial in state history.
(Ward Koeser, Williston Mayor) "The region is on the grow. Thousands of people are coming to our communities and countryside and they all need water."
And a county commissioner said water sales through WAWS would help save local and county roads from ruin by diminishing the water truck count.
(Ron Anderson, McKenzie County Commissioner) "We need this water project now."
WAWS officials pointed out they have responded to IWP concerns in the location and number of water depots - reducing the total number of sales depots and delaying construction in some areas where independent providers are concentrated. And the chairman of WAWS said work needs to keep going.
(Denton Zubke, WAWS Chairman) "It is unequalled in its structure and its timeline in this state. So I'm here simply to ask for your support. We need to continue this project."
In the end, the committee asked Water Commission staff to help decide what role - if any - the State Water Commission should play in resolving the dispute. Jim Olson, KX News.
If WAWS is not held up by any legal action, the first delivery of WAWS water is expected by the end of this year - less than two years since the legislature authorized the project.