Profile: Meeting water challenges head on

Mark Peterson is the operations manager for the city of Fargo water purification plant. David Samson / The Forum

Marino Eccher - Reporter - The Forum

FARGO – Whenever you turn the tap here, the water that comes out has Mark Peterson’s fingerprints all over it.

Not literally, of course – Peterson spends all day making sure the city’s drinking water is free of contaminants and fit for consumption. But as the operations supervisor for Fargo’s Water Treatment Plant, he goes to work every day knowing he has an impact on everyone who uses city water.

He’s not doing it alone. Peterson manages a team of 10 operators who work around the clock in 12-hour shifts to make the sure the plant is producing enough clean water to meet the city’s needs. Those operators monitor water quality and adapt to environmental changes that require tweaks in treatment – more of one chemical or less of another, for instance.

Peterson, who’s going on 16 years at the plant, was an operator himself for many of those years. The Williston native came here from what was then North Dakota State University-Bottineau, where he graduated with a degree in water treatment (the school is now Dakota College at Bottineau). It was a new program when he arrived, and Peterson recalls “someone handing me a brochure for it.”

Peterson wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do with his career, but was drawn to the program because of its focus on lab work in biology and chemistry – areas in which he enjoyed working. He also figured water treatment would be a stable career because the demand wasn’t going away anytime soon.
“There’s always a need for water,” he said.

Today, he enjoys the job because of its ever-evolving challenges, whether that’s meeting a steady stream of new regulations or studying and adopting the latest water treatment technology for use at the plant.

In his line of work, there’s never an end in sight: The better treatment methods get, the more contaminants they can detect that have to be scrubbed. Nowadays, technology can sniff out contaminants in the parts-per-billion range.

“The more they find, the more you’ve got to remove,” he said. And every method comes with its own price and byproducts.

Right now, the plant is midway through a yearlong pilot study on removing sulfates through reverse osmosis – essentially pumping the water through a fine membrane. It’s also looking into ultraviolet disinfection, the next wave of disinfectant technology.

People who know what Peterson does for a living aren’t shy about approaching him with water treatment questions: Why is my tap water cloudy, how do I treat the water at my lake home, and the like. He stresses that there are no one-size-fits-all treatment answers.

“That’s what everybody wants to know … what do I do?” he said. “Water chemistry, it can really change from one source to another.”

The Fargo plant has won the honor of best-tasting water in North Dakota multiple times, including last year. As someone who knows more than most about the factors that affect water quality, Peterson can’t help but notice subtle differences when he travels.

“Everybody gets used to what ‘normal’ is at home,” he said. “You definitely taste differences. Maybe the type of disinfection they do.”

But, he added, he hopes his expertise – and success – hasn’t made him a water snob.

Marino Eccher reports for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

Profile: Passion for clean water turns into profession

Moriya Rufer, director of client services for RMB Environmental Laboratories in Detroit Lakes, collects a sample to test for zebra mussels on Pelican Lake. RMB Environmental Laboratories

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. – Moriya Rufer came by her passion for the cold-water lakes of Minnesota honestly: scrabbling along the shore of Leech Lake as a child, looking for water bugs, splashing on the beach, boating with her parents and catching frogs.

The Detroit Lakes woman is still water crazy, even though she’s all grown up. Now, at age 34, she’s working for RMB Environmental Laboratories.

When it comes to water quality, Rufer tends to find herself in the thick of the fight, whether it’s flowering rush on the Detroit Lakes city beach, zebra mussels in Otter Tail County, or working with Becker County on its tough new lake septic system ordinance.

Some of her volunteer time is paid by her employer, much of it is donated.
Rufer’s love of lakes and concern about the environment found a good match in her job as director of client services at RMB Environmental Laboratories, where she specializes in aquatic insects and water quality in lakes.

“People ask me all the time ‘how are our lakes doing?’ You can’t generalize.

It depends on the area and the lake itself: A lot of elements come into play – the lake size, depth, setting, location, watershed,” she said. “You need about 10 years of data to get a real analysis, so you can tell if a lake is getting better or worse.”

Rufer and her colleagues train volunteer lake monitors to do Secchi disk testing for water clarity and show them how to take proper water samples.

They test for phosphates and chlorophyll A (which indicates algae concentration) because if the volunteers aren’t careful, results can be contaminated – via an improperly cleaned container, for example.

Those volunteers take their jobs seriously, Rufer said, in part because they know the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency appreciates the help.

“The reports are being used by the state instead of sitting in a drawer somewhere,” she said.

Lake shape matters
Some Minnesota lakes are in danger of “being loved to death,” Rufer said, and she has helped Becker County determine which major lakes are most threatened: A lot of it has to do with the shape and depth of the lake.

A long, skinny lake may have just as much shoreline development and recreational activity as a large, round lake, but the skinny lake doesn’t have nearly the water volume to absorb and process contaminants.

“Landlocked” lakes without inlets and outlets have a similar problem – contaminants have nowhere to go. And shallow lakes – 15 feet or less at their deepest point – have problems of their own.

If people clear off too much of the natural aquatic vegetation, algae takes its place, and “you get pea soup,” Rufer said. Once that happens, it’s very difficult to turn it around, she added.
In other words, lake management matters – a lot.

Over time, lakes naturally fill up with sediment and become shallower and greener, with more plants and algae, Rufer said.

“It takes thousands of years for the natural process, but humans can do it in decades,” she added.

Water plants and bugs
Some of Rufer’s work began with her on-the-job training at age 2: Looking at water plants and bugs.

An aquatic plant survey involves “going out and about and identifying all the plants in a lake,” she said. “It’s really good for finding out if you have invasive species.”

She also does macro invertebrate collection and identification. These little guys are at “the bottom of the food chain in lakes,” she said. “The variety and abundance of invertebrates can tell you about the variety of the fish population.”

Rufer grew up in Northfield and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the College of St. Benedict and a master’s degree in entomology at the University of Minnesota.

She and her husband, Sam, moved to Detroit Lakes from the Twin Cities five years ago. He is an attorney with the Pemberton, Sorlie, Rufer and Kershner Law Firm. They have a 2-year-old daughter, Marielle.

“I work all over the whole state, but I really like the local stuff because that’s where I can see we’re making a difference,” she said.

And yes, her family still has that cabin on Leech Lake.

“I have been there every summer since birth,”’ she said. “It is my mental and spiritual retreat – my place of renewal.”

And having a daughter of her own now will make the experience all the better.

“I can’t wait to teach her all the names and roles of the different creatures that rely on the lake for their existence, and how important it is to respect them and their habitat.”

Nathan Bowe reports for Detroit Lakes Newspapers.

Graphic: River to faucet

Graphic by Troy Becker / Forum Communications Co.

The road to clean water

FARGO – It comes in from the river brown and swirling with silt. It leaves your tap clear and clean. And that, says Bruce Grubb, is a minor miracle.

“It’s amazing to me that you can take water out of the Red River, and when you look at that water, it seems kind of dirty, and you can take that and it ends up coming out so clean,” said Grubb, director of the Fargo Water Treatment Plant.

When all was said and done last year, that suspect-looking river – plus the Sheyenne, a secondary source for the plant – wound up producing the best-tasting water in the state of North Dakota – a distinction Grubb calls “our Super Bowl.” Across the river, Moorhead’s water treatment plant has won the same honor multiple times.

Getting there isn’t easy. Water treatment plants like the ones in Fargo, Moorhead, and Grand Forks work around the clock to monitor, treat and distribute millions of gallons of water each day. They blend water from multiple sources, keep a close eye on conditions upstream, and try to anticipate changes in water quality before they reach the plant.

The treatment process varies slightly from plant to plant, but many of the basics are the same.

– Marino Eccher

Treatment processes change by season

A storm drain in Fargo. Drains can pick up a number of contaminants, such as road salt, oil and other chemicals. Michael Vosburg / Forum Communications Co.

Marino Eccher - Reporter - The Forum

Many of the contaminants that need to be removed in water treatment – soil, clay, organic waste, minerals – come from natural sources. But humans play a role, too. When rainwater and snowmelt washes through cities and into storm drains, it picks up a number of contaminants.

Much of those are dirt and soil particles. They can also include sand and salt from road treatment, organic material like yard waste, and automobile fluids like leaky oil or car-wash residue.

In cities like Fargo, Moorhead and Grand Forks, storm water and melt water run into storm retention ponds that help control the release of runoff. Those retention ponds provide some natural treatment: Solids sink to the bottom, oils rise to the top and natural processes help break down some contaminants.

The water isn’t processed or otherwise treated before going back to the river.

Both rainwater and melt water are softer than normal river water, so water treatment plants adjust their softening processes to account for the difference when there’s precipitation.

Spring in particular is a hectic time for water treatment, both because of the constant stream of melt water and because organic materials can flow freely under the surface of frozen rivers. Those organics can contribute to taste and odor issues in drinking water in spring.

The same treatment processes used to treat natural contaminants are effective in treating man-made pollutants.

Residents can take a few basic steps to minimize contaminants: Collect yard waste or use composting, deal swiftly with automobile leaks or other fluid leaks, and don’t let sprinklers run amok.

Downstream cities like Grand Forks also have to deal with treated wastewater from Fargo and Moorhead.

One of the newest concerns in water quality is monitoring for residuals from pharmaceuticals, in particular endocrine disruptors used in birth control pills. Most of these contaminants are still in the monitoring phase of regulation to determine if further action is needed.

Marino Eccher reports for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

Gilby man knows need for clean

Gus Cronquist, manager of the Agassiz Rural Water Users District, has been with the cooperative full time for more than 34 years. John Brose Photography

Ann Bailey - Reporter - Grand Forks Herald

GILBY, N.D. – Gus Cronquist doesn’t take turning on the tap for granted.

A lifelong resident of the Gilby area, Cronquist knows what it was like to grow up in a home without running water.

Meanwhile, as manager of the Agassiz Water Users District, he also is well aware of the amount of work that goes into delivering water through a rural water system.

Cronquist grew up on a farm near Gilby in a family of eight that, like their neighbors, relied on a delivery truck for their water supply.

“I grew up in a house that we had to be careful what we used for water,” Cronquist said. “The problem in the Valley is, you can’t have a well you can drink from” because the taste, odor and the amount of salt in the water makes it undrinkable.

“I don’t think it would have killed you, but boy it was nasty,” Cronquist said.

“Everybody had a cistern.” People also collected rainwater off of their roofs and used it for things like clothes washing and showering. Some even used the rainwater for drinking water, Cronquist said.

Rural water
Because the water supply was unreliable and expensive, Cronquist’s father, Clark Cronquist Jr., and others in the area started searching for other options, and in the late 1960s, founded the Agassiz Rural Water System, a not-for-profit cooperative.

“The construction started in ’71, and the system was fully operational in 1973,” Cronquist said. He worked part time for the water system as a “jack-of-all-trades” for the first few years.

“Whatever needed to be done, helping fix water leaks, changing meters and diaphragms within homes,” Cronquist said. After working part time for the water system for a few years, Cronquist became operator in 1978 at age 24.

“I figured I’d stay there till I was 30 and go do something else.”

He didn’t, though.

Thirty-four years later, Cronquist, 58, continues to work with the rural water system, now as manager.

“I still like it. I don’t like 3 o’clock in the morning in February and up to your knees in mud, but I enjoy the people and the job,” he said.

Agassiz Water Users District
The Agassiz Rural Water system, now called the Agassiz Water Users District, serves 1,350 customers who live on farms and in the North Dakota towns of Gilby, Inkster, Ardoch, Johnstown, Forest River, Manvel and Mekinock.

Three wells west of the town of Inkster pump water out of the Inkster aquifer.

The Inkster aquifer is classified as “undefined” because its exact boundaries are unknown, Cronquist said.

After the water is treated, it travels through 350 miles of pipeline to Agassiz Water Users District customers. The district adds, on average, eight to 10 customers each year. The new customers are people who already live within the boundaries of the district, Cronquist said.

“Our boundaries are set by the state.”

Water quality
The water drawn from the aquifer is treated in a plant at the well’s site for iron and manganese and is chlorinated and fluorinated.

The water also is routinely tested to ensure its quality, Cronquist said. For example, each month, water from four wells is tested for coliform bacteria.

“We also test because there’s irrigation. Our source water is tested for organic and inorganic compounds, volatile inorganic compounds.”

So far, the testing has revealed no problems with water quality.

“We’ve never found any ‘action’ levels,” Cronquist said.

The district also tests samples of water, collected from inside customers’ homes, for lead, copper and aluminum. The tests are conducted to make sure that the water isn’t causing the minerals to leach out of the pipes, Cronquist said.

The North Dakota Department of Health helps the district meet water quality standards, Cronquist noted. The department requires water district operators to attend schools before they are licensed and holds continuing education classes. Operators must take 30 hours of classes every three years, he said. Classes include innovations in treatment programs and updates on testing.

“It’s very comprehensive,” Cronquist said.

Each March, the Agassiz Water Users District sends its customers a consumer confidence report that documents the results of its previous year’s testing.

Cronquist supports the testing and the paperwork he is required to do.

“Our main job is to deliver quality, safe water in a timely manner … I enjoy working with the members, and I enjoy the fact we’re able to deliver them a dependable supply of water.

“It’s the minimum we can do to make sure this water is of good quality and safe. I drink this water every day. My mother drinks this water every day.”

Ann Bailey reports for the Grand Forks Herald.

Fight intensifies against invasive species in lakes

Baby zebra mussels were discovered in Rose Lake near Vergas, Minn., in 2011. Paula Quam / Forum Communications Co.

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. – Living in Minnesota’s Lakes Country, it’s easy to watch the spread of invasive zebra mussels from lake to lake and feel like a victim: They are already in more than 50 Minnesota lakes and rivers, after all.

Can anything stop their spread?

“A lot of people want to give up on invasives because it only takes one boat to move them,” said Moriya Rufer, a lake specialist with RMB Environmental Laboratories in Detroit Lakes. “But the better educated people are about them, the better the chance of lessening their spread.”

A small group of Becker County lake enthusiasts are doing everything they can to keep zebra mussels out of the county.

One of them is Terry Kalil. The efficient, hard-working vice president of the Becker County Coalition of Lake Associations can’t stand the thought of everybody sitting on their hands waiting for the inevitable.

“I truly believe we’re in a crisis,” Kalil said. “This is the moment – our last, best and perhaps only chance to prevent it – because we aren’t infested yet (in Becker County), but it may be too late as soon as next year.”

She and a handful of others see the need for action so clearly that they won’t wait for government to catch up: They say that, up until now, the Department of Natural Resources’ response has been slow and cumbersome, and county officials haven’t indicated they are willing to fund the fight at the level that will really make a difference.

That would require at least a part-time county employee to lead the effort and the purchase of a decontamination unit, Kalil said. And it needs to happen before this summer.

What they do
So what’s so bad about zebra mussels? They multiply like tribbles – an adult female produces 30,000 to 1 million eggs per year, and about 2 percent survive – and filter up to a quart of water a day as they feast on tiny animals and algae in a lake.

“In the short term, that makes the water clearer,” Kalil said. “The only reason it’s clearer is the plankton is gone and the plankton is what the little fish eat so they can grow up to be big fish and people can go fishing.”

Some fish species, like smallmouth bass and bottom feeders, thrive on zebra mussels, but they can’t put a dent in the population, and an infestation is bad news for most popular game fish species.

That leads ultimately to empty hooks being pulled up by anglers. Populations of some fish species have declined by as much as 90 percent in the Great Lakes, where the infestation first came to the United States in 1988 via freighters.
Zebra mussels are usually about the size of a thumbnail, but they jam pipes and infrastructure and pile onto native clams and mussels so thickly that the natives can’t open their shells to eat.

“Zebra mussels change the whole lake dynamic,” said Tera Guetter, administrator of the Pelican River Watershed District.

An infested lake will look clear and clean in the middle where it’s deeper, but in the shallower water, the infestation may have caused algae bloom to line the shore, she said.

Trying to stop them
Zebra mussels infested Pelican Lake in 2009. They were found last summer in Rose Lake near Vergas. Both lakes are right across the Becker County line in Otter Tail County.

Zebra mussels can hitchhike from lake to lake on fishing boats, docks and boatlifts.

Desperate to stop them, and with a big fishing derby coming up, Kalil and a friend, Barb Halbakken-Fischburg, last summer got their hands on one of the first decontamination units in the state, driving to the Twin Cities themselves to pick it up and haul it back to Detroit Lakes.

The locals also organized volunteer lake monitors to man public accesses at popular lakes on weekends, talking to boaters about the threat posed by zebra mussels and why they should follow state rules designed to prevent their spread.
Containing the striped Eurasian invaders isn’t easy to do: They are sent out into the lakes as tiny, invisible free-floating larvae (called veligers) that are most easily detected by touch – they make a boat hull feel like sandpaper.
They travel blissfully along with the current, attaching themselves to aquatic plants, boats, docks, lifts, water intake pipes, you name it.

That’s why it’s essential that boaters remove aquatic plants from their boats after they leave a lake – zebra mussels attach to them.

No more Mr. Nice Guy
Because of the threat to lakes, the DNR says it is done giving warnings, Kalil said.

“The new roadside inspection law passed last year gives the DNR authority to inspect any watercraft anywhere – inside and out,” she said. People hauling boats without first pulling their plugs can expect to get a ticket.

It’s part of a massive DNR upgrade this year of its efforts to stop zebra mussels and other aquatic invasives.
Motorists pulling boats or other marine equipment may now be routed into road check stations, where their boats may be decontaminated, and they may be ticketed for violating laws prohibiting the transportation of aquatic invasive species.

The DNR will purchase 20 high-pressure, hot water decontamination units that will be operated at zebra mussel-infested waters, high-use destination lakes and at DNR enforcement checkpoints. There are now just three such units in the state.

The DNR will also hire 150 new watercraft inspectors and three new invasive-species specialists to be deployed around the state.
Finally, the activists in Becker County aren’t feeling so lonely.

Nathan Bowe reports for Detroit Lakes Newspapers. Detroit Lakes Tribune reporter Pippi Mayfield contributed to this story.

Costly challenges ahead to handle Devils Lake water

Different filtration methods are being tested at the Fargo Water Treatment Plant as it prepares for the release of Devils Lake water that will flow into the Sheyenne River. Photos by David Samson / Forum Communications Co.

FARGO – Communities along the Sheyenne River don’t dispute that a solution is needed to abate rising Devils Lake.

But the answer of choice – drainage outlets into the Sheyenne River – presents a costly challenge that carries Devils Lake concerns into southeastern North Dakota.

In order to keep using the Sheyenne for water supply in the years to come, several cities in the river valley are upgrading their water treatment processes to cope with the addition of Devils Lake water.

Valley City officials recently completed multimillion-dollar upgrades to their water treatment plant, and Fargo and West Fargo are studying options to do the same.

All the fuss stems from minerals found in Devils Lake water that have infiltrated the Sheyenne River since state water officials built a man-made outlet from Devils Lake in 2005.

By this summer, officials plan to build two more outlets and a control structure to increase the releases from the lake and mitigate a potential catastrophic overflow.

However, Devils Lake water contains higher levels of sulfates than are naturally present in the Sheyenne River.

At the least, those extra sulfates could be a distasteful nuisance to residents and, at the worst, could spark digestive problems since sulfates are a natural laxative.

Preparing for the onslaught of sulfates, officials in Valley City, Fargo and West Fargo began discussions years ago on how to obtain better purification systems and keep the extra minerals out of the public water supply.

Valley City, like West Fargo, draws its primary water supply from groundwater via a system of wells, but the Sheyenne is an emergency source the cities also use.

Fargo draws water mostly from the Red River but taps into the Sheyenne 40 percent of the time.

Because of the higher sulfate levels present in Devils Lake water, these downstream communities must adapt to stay within health regulations and keep water quality within acceptable levels.

The sulfates standard for the lower Sheyenne is 450 milligrams per liter, which likely would be exceeded with higher releases from Devils Lake, state health officials have said.

The standard on the Red River – which the Sheyenne drains into – is 250 milligrams per liter, a concentration that has been exceeded a number of times since Devils Lake’s west-end outlet began operating seven years ago.

A generous boost from federal and state funding allowed Valley City to install $21 million in upgrades to its treatment plant last year.

The new features include ultra-filtration and nano-filtration to remove extra sulfates and keep mineral levels within health and aesthetic standards.
The facility treats 4 million gallons of water each day for Valley City’s 6,600 residents.

Fargo and West Fargo city leaders want similar state and federal aid to boost their own treatment processes.

Both cities are still studying their options for water treatment and haven’t committed to a specific remedy yet.

City leaders are discussing the potential for a joint facility but are also looking at independent options.

Fargo began a pilot study in summer 2011 to gauge what technology might be needed to combat the additional sulfates and also when an expansion of the facility would be required to match the city’s growth.

Fargo built its $75 million water treatment center in 1997, and a full overhaul of Fargo’s plant could cost another $60 million to $70 million, city leaders said.

Meanwhile, West Fargo faces at least a $15 million price tag to improve its own treatment system, which now entails a minimal purification of groundwater.

West Fargo’s water supply comes from a large underground aquifer via various wells in the city.

Once the aquifer is depleted because of the growing demand from a booming population, West Fargo leaders aim to draw their water supply from the nearby Sheyenne.

But that solution would require a costly treatment facility because of the high sulfate levels flowing down from Devils Lake.

Kristen M. Daum - Reporter - The Forum

In the months ahead, a multi-phase study should give West Fargo city leaders a complete picture of how much supply remains in the underground aquifer and how much time the city might have before a treatment plant is needed.

Kristen Daum reports for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead