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Village life ain't what it used to be

More money, kids, action in Waskada

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WASKADA-- Hilt Wallace has an unusual problem for a lifelong resident of the Waskada area.

"I don't know people in Waskada anymore," said Wallace, referring to the influx of transient workers to the southwestern Manitoba village at the epicentre of the province's modest oil boom. "Someone moves into a house where there used to be two people and now there are six or eight guys in there, plus all their vehicles and toys. It's different."

When Wallace says he doesn't know people, he means he no longer knows everyone in a village where the official population of 185 doesn't take into account the Albertans, Ontarians, Maritimers and eastern Manitobans attracted by what the oil industry calls the "Waskada play," home to almost one-quarter of the province's wells.

Situated in the most arid corner of Manitoba, Waskada has spent most of its existence at the mercy of droughts and deluges.

While advances in agricultural technology have mitigated the destructive effects of the highly variable climate, the past three years have seen even more rapid change in the form of oil and gas development.

Horizontal drilling, which involves fracturing large, thin layers of once-inaccessible oil-bearing rock, has led to a rapid rise in the number of wells in and around Waskada, where conventional, vertical wells have operated for decades. As of the end of 2012, there were 1,088 wells operating in the Waskada play, most of them owned by Calgary's PennWest Exploration and Houston's EOG Resources, two of the largest players in Manitoba's oil industry.

Both PennWest and EOG have opened offices in Waskada and operate crude oil batteries -- facilities where sediment and water are separated from heavy oil -- several kilometres south of the village.

Pumpjacks, either alone or bunched in clusters on multi-well pads, bob like massive ducks amid the grain fields and cattle ranches on almost every mile section around Waskada. Heavy trucks serving the batteries and new fracks are a constant presence on gravel roads originally intended for use by the occasional combine or pickup truck.

As recently as five years ago, as few as 40 vehicles a day drove down Park Street, the main north-south road running through Waskada. At one point last year, that figure rose to 1,200 vehicle trips per day, said Mayor Gary Williams.

"That's a tough thing for a town of this size to handle," said Williams, listing off both the benefits and the drawbacks of the modest boom.

Oil royalties bequeathed by the daughter of a former resident cover most of the village's operating budget. Oil workers granted as much as $160 a day in living expenses benefit the owners of the town's hotel/restaurant and Williams' own son, who opened four mobile homes to transient workers and charges $80 a night for the accommodations.

At least two contracting firms serving the oil companies have opened up in Waskada, along with a brand-new, 2,600-square-foot Sunrise Credit Union branch that boasts the village's first ATM.

"It's very popular with the transient population. I'm not going to give you any numbers, but it's already (dispensing) double the amount we started with," said branch manager Steve Brigden, a lifelong-area resident.

Statistics Canada figures show Waskada's population dropped between 2006 and 2011, to 185 from 199. The figure doesn't include transient workers who would lose their living stipends if they list Waskada as their place of residence.

Some of those workers are putting down roots in the village -- along with former residents who are returning home.

"I've lived here 40 years. I saw most of my friends leave. They're coming back and they're bringing their spouses and their friends. There's a lot of optimism," Brigden said.

To illustrate the point, he shows four children how the ATM works. The number of students enrolled in Waskada's school has risen to nearly 100 from a low of 66 in the last decade.

"It's nice to see children here again," said longtime resident Pam Radcliffe, whose own son returned to work at one of the batteries.

But there's also concern Waskada's character will change, even if the influx of money, people and industrial activity is mild in comparison with the overheated oil economies in Alberta and North Dakota.

Some of the new Waskada residents park multiple ATVs or trucks on their properties. A small minority doesn't mow their lawns or tend to weeds, Willams said.

The mayor, however, is just grateful his village hasn't experienced anywhere near the social upheaval of small communities in North Dakota, where oil-boom-related drug use, prostitution, crime and high living costs have annoyed or even driven out long-term residents.

"Money doesn't always bring out the best in people," said the mayor, whose own business, Griffith Agencies, sells both auto insurance and liquor. "But we did have a fatal motor-vehicle accident out on the roads. I can't tell you the last time that happened."


-- With a file from Mary Agnes Welch

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2013 A4

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