North Dakota Oil Town Literally Using Poop To Measure Population


One of the frustrating problems with trying to measure the impact of North Dakota oil development on communities in the state – both in terms of boom-era growth and now post-boom declines – was that most population estimates have been woefully inaccurate.

The Census on does their big count once every ten years, and they release estimates only sporadically in between, and that’s not very useful for communities that have doubled or even tripled in size over the course of a couple of years. We get estimates from local officials who are trying to make informed guesses as to how many people they have living in an area, but those are just guesses.

So the City of Williston has turned to something they feel is much more reliable. Specifically, measuring the poo output in their city:

The population of a U.S. oil boomtown that became a symbol of the fracking revolution is dropping fast because of the collapse in crude oil prices , according to an unusual metric: the amount of sewage produced.

Williston, North Dakota, has seen its population drop about 6 percent since last summer, according to wastewater data relied upon heavily by city planning officials.

They turned to measuring effluent because it was a much faster and more accurate way to track population than alternatives such as construction permits, school enrollment, tax receipts or airport boardings.

City officials estimate that Williston had 33,866 in August of 2014, while the U.S. Census pegged the population at 24,562 in July of that year.

The current estimate, based on sewage output, is that Williston is sitting at 31,800 people through June of 2015.

That’s down, sure, but keep in mind that according to the Census numbers (which were more accurate pre-boom) Williston had 12,580 people in 2008.

That’s a nearly 170 percent increase in population from 2008 to 2014 (assuming Williston’s poo-based estimates are accurate). Which puts that six percent decline to 31,800 measured-by-poo population into perspective.