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.