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Oil counties use GIS to catch up with rapid growth, plan ahead

DICKINSON, N.D. -- As roads, buildings and people change daily in the oilfield, sometimes officials just need a bird’s-eye view.

So county agencies turn to maps, often with geographic information system staff, to see where growth is occurring or may occur. Maps range from showing simple but ever-changing things, like roads, to where workforce housing is or where drilling will take place.

“If we want to know what’s going on in a certain area, we just use that deal and show us a printout of what’s going on,” McKenzie County Commission Chairman Ron Anderson said.

The county recently hired GIS specialist Aaron Chisholm, partly to catch up on physical addressing for emergency responders.

“We’ve been kinda floundering up here trying to get that done,” Anderson said. “... It’s such an important part for emergency service.”

And Chisholm is still working on it -- just on Friday morning, he addressed 50 new homes because of a new subdivision.

He’s catching up. When he started in December, he had 70 pending address requests -- for subdivisions, trailer parks, etc. -- but handled all those within a month.

Chisholm, who originally applied for an oilfield job in North Dakota, is often out on the road checking that addresses are accurate.

“A lot of people will get told that their address is something when it actually is something else,” he said.

But he uses the mapping for getting a handle on all aspects of the community’s growth, not just addresses.

“I’m branching out to use it for everything,” he said, from water pipes and voter precincts to zoning and school taxing districts.

Williams County GIS technician Nick Youngstrom said county departments there use the maps rather than looking through plats.

“It sort of streamlines everything,” he said.

The county has maps online for rigs and wells, road weight restrictions, workforce housing and parcels.

The state’s Oil and Gas Division GIS map includes a “layer” that shows where drilling is going to occur, based on permits and when they expire.

“It was part of this greater infrastructure rollout that the governor’s office has done,” Department of Mineral Resources spokeswoman Alison Ritter said. “It was to help provide more transparency.”

“Communities or commissioners can take a look at our map server and see where some of the anticipated traffic may be,” she said, “and maybe take a look at that and where their school bus routes are or where some heavily impacted gravel roads (are).”

Though oil country is still largely in catchup mode, the maps can help plan ahead.

“If you have a school bus route that’s on a stretch of road that might anticipate some heavy drilling, maybe we can move that school bus route here or there to avoid that heavier influx of traffic,” Ritter said.

“The whole idea behind the layer was to help anticipate rig moves so communities can plan where some of the heavier traffic would be.”

Williams County commissioners pull up GIS maps during their meetings to get the larger picture, literally.

“They help you kind of visualize what’s going on in a way that maybe looking at an assortment of plats couldn’t,” Youngstrom said.

Planning ahead like that is one benefit of GIS in general, Chisholm said.

But, at least in McKenzie County, “we’re not to that point yet because we’re still in the catch-up phase,” he said.

“Hopefully soon we can start using GIS for the future.”