New developments offer hope for concerns in region’s basins

A trio of shore fishermen cast into the waters of Devils Lake from a spit of land. Forum Communications Co.

Kevin Bonham - Grand Forks Herald

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. – While people living downstream of the chronically flooding Devils Lake Basin and other areas of the Red River Basin express concern over potentially harmful effects of poorer-quality water flowing through the Sheyenne and Red River basins, a couple of recent developments might offer some hope.

First, a three-year study commissioned by an international organization concluded this past fall that water being transferred from Devils Lake poses a low risk to downstream fish and fisheries.

Secondly, the same group – The International Red River Board of the International Joint Commission – endorsed a plan to develop a comprehensive nutrient management strategy that will focus on reducing nutrient contributions throughout the watershed.

The new committee is the result of a meeting in 2010 of representatives from the U.S. and Canadian federal governments, the state of North Dakota and the province of Manitoba to discuss issues associated with the Devils Lake flooding situation.

Fish study
The Devils Lake-Red River Basin Fish Parasite and Pathogen Project, Qualitative Risk Assessment, indicated that three bacteria, one parasite and several lesions identified in fish from Devils Lake are not found elsewhere in the basin.

An expert panel of pathologists determined that they could be transferred downstream through a number of pathways, including an existing outlet with gravel and rock filter, by birds, bait transfer by anglers or boats moved from one location to another.
However, the panel also concluded that the parasite and bacteria in question generally are widely distributed throughout much of North America, that none are foreign species and that they could have an adverse effect on fish health only if it was already compromised for other reasons.

“For these reasons, all the experts concluded that the risk to downstream fish and fisheries from the parasites and pathogens of Devils Lake is low, and the potential for causing disease is minimal,” the IJC said in its report.

The U.S. and Canadian governments requested the study in 2005. It was conducted by the IJC’s aquatic ecosystem committee for the International Red River Board.

Devils Lake has risen by almost 32 feet and quadrupled in size since 1993, hitting a record elevation this summer of 1,454.4 feet above sea level, less than 4 feet below the point at which it would begin overflowing from the connected Stump Lake to the Sheyenne.

According to 2005 statistics, the Devils Lake sport fishery and recreational industry was valued at $56 million annually; the Red River recreational fishery in Canada was estimated at
$10 million to $15 million annually; and Lake Winnipeg’s commercial fishery, the largest in North America, had annual revenues of more than $15 million.

The state of North Dakota began transferring water downstream from Devils Lake in 2005 through an outlet to the Sheyenne River.

While it has been expanded to a capacity of as much as 250 cubic feet of water per second during the summer and fall, mechanical problems this year have resulted in average releases of about 100 cfs or less.

By summer, the state plans to build two additional outlets and a control structure, increasing the potential transfer to as much as 1,000 cfs.

Study suggestions
The IJC’s study included these recommendations:

– Adopt a precautionary approach to monitoring and preventing the transfer of invasive species and certain fish pathogens into the Hudson Bay Basin.

– Use data from the current study to assess the risk to fish in the Red River Basin from parasites and pathogens found throughout the basin, including Lake Winnipeg.

– Use innovative risk analysis methods and techniques such as computer modeling.

– Establish a program to monitor fish parasites and pathogens.

– Start a project to determine route of transfer, rate of spread, and distribution of the Asian tapeworm in the Hudson Bay Basin. The population characteristics of the tapeworm could be used as a model to study invasion pathways of foreign species into the watershed.

Nutrient strategy
The new IRRB committee that will develop a nutrient reduction strategy includes representatives from North Dakota, Minnesota, Manitoba, the Red River Basin Commission and federal agencies in both countries.

The committee will collect nutrient reduction efforts already under way and will exchange information on nutrient-control technology and practices.

Nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen enter lakes and rivers from fields, discharges from treatment facilities and other sources, according to Lance Yohe, RRBC executive director.

Nutrients can cause excessive growth of algae and other plants leading to problems with water clarity and dissolved oxygen levels.

Paul Aasen, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner, said that while local jurisdictions ultimately will make final decisions on nutrient reduction, the committee can help exchange information, promote consistence wherever possible and identify high-priority areas.

“In Minnesota, we have monitoring results and watershed modeling data that show where the highest percentage of nutrients are coming from to help us focus our resources on those areas first.”

“Ultimately, it will be the people living in the Red River Basin who will be responsible for reducing nutrient inputs to our rivers and lakes,” said Dennis Fewless, director of the North Dakota Department of Health’s Division of Water Quality. “The committee’s goal is to develop a strategy based on sound science and basinwide cooperation, while retaining the nutrient management efforts unique to each jurisdiction.”

“The reduction of nutrients will improve water quality and the health not only of Lake Winnipeg but of all surface waters across the international Red River watershed,” said Nicole Armstrong, director of Manitoba’s Water Science and Management Branch, Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship.

Kevin Bonham reports for the Grand Forks Herald.

Robbing the banks

The buildup of sediment greatly increased in areas along the Missouri River following the record 2011 flood. This area, visible from the Double Ditch Village historic site north of Bismarck, shows a vast sandbar in the aftermath of the flood. Water leaving Garrison Dam, upstream of Bismarck, is clearer than in the pre-dam era, allowing capacity to pick up and later deposit sediment. Patrick Springer / Forum Communications Co.

Patrick Springer - Reporter - The Forum

Riverbank erosion along Missouri River can affect water quality in region

MANDAN, N.D. – Chuck Mork’s farm on the high bottomland along the Missouri River saw almost nine quarters of land submerged by the record flood in the summer of 2011.

Altogether, almost a third of his crop acres were flooded – all planted before the flood warnings came in late May.

After the floodwaters receded in the fall, he was pleasantly surprised to find most of his land survived the ordeal in pretty good shape, despite the massive crop loss.

The worst damage involved the loss of land along a half mile of riverbank, where the surging river nibbled away between 2 feet and 10 feet of pasture, also taking a dozen trees, mostly old cottonwoods.

“We did have some erosion,” Mork says. “Not super bad. Our situation is not near as bad as some.”

Riverbank erosion along the Missouri River can be a significant problem, an issue that has a surprising connection to water quality.

Garrison Dam, 75 miles upstream of Bismarck-Mandan, regulates the river’s flows. But the water coming out of the dam is clearer than the “Muddy Missouri” that preceded Garrison, giving it the capacity to pick up and redeposit sediment.

The riverbank along the area near the Mork farm suffered severe erosion in the late 1950s and early 1960s after the dam was closed in 1953.

The late Andy Mork, Chuck Mork’s father, was an outspoken advocate of riverbank stabilization downstream of the dam.
The stabilization projects, involving placement of a protective shield of rip-rap rocks, were the first on the Missouri River in North Dakota.

A neighbor north of the Mork farm, eight miles north of Mandan, was also among landowners spared from significant riverbank erosion – thanks in large part to the efforts years ago of Mork’s late father, The upstream neighbor’s flood-prone fields, protected by more than a mile of rip-rap laid in the 1960s, survived without noticeable erosion, Mork says.

“Without that bank protection, the flows we had last summer, it would have eaten away the ever-living heck out of them,” he says.

Actually, Mork adds, hundreds of acres of his neighbor’s fields already would have been gobbled up by the river if the bank hadn’t been protected by rip-rap.
Officials of the Army Corps of Engineers, which built and operates Garrison Dam and the other Missouri River dams, maintain that riverbank erosion has been reduced as a result of the regulated river flows.

Still, the erosion of the riverbed and banks and deposition of sediment downstream remains a significant problem in areas.

Sedimentation, as the process is called, is an aggravating factor in areas as diverse as flood control and hydropower generation.

The exacerbation of flooding is most evident a few miles downstream from the Mork farm, around Bismarck and Mandan and nearby housing developments.

One culprit is a delta formed by silt deposited by the Missouri River as it encounters the still headwaters of Lake Oahe, the reservoir of Oahe Dam near Pierre, S.D., and extending almost to Bismarck-Mandan.

The delta has created a bottleneck, narrowing the river channel to a width of 30 or 40 feet, resulting in ice jams that can exacerbate flooding, as happened in a brief 2009 flood.

State and local officials have complained about the flood risk posed by the delta for years. It caused the federal government to raise the elevation of the 100-year flood by one foot in 1999 for an area of south Bismarck and south of the city.

The flood risk from the continued buildup of sediment was again acknowledged in a 2009 study for the corps, but state and local officials complain that so far no action has been taken to alleviate the problem.

“We’re just building up bigger and bigger headaches,” says Todd Sando, North Dakota’s state engineer and top staff official of the State Water Commission. “Having a delta in a shallow area is just inviting ice jams.”

A study by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1999 concluded that more than 90 percent of the sediment in the Missouri River running through North Dakota comes from the river’s banks and bed.

Less than 10 percent of the siltation originates from tributaries, including the Heart River and Knife River.

Ironically, the sedimentation problem partly stems from the clearer water that flows out of Garrison and the other dams along the Missouri River.

It’s the downside of the Missouri’s relatively clear water, among the highest-quality water in North Dakota, according to the State Water Commission.
Here’s a simplified explanation of how the dams have altered the Missouri River’s ability to carry and deposit sediment.

Almost all of the sediment suspended in the river settles in the dam reservoirs before moving farther downstream – leaving the water with the capacity to pick up more silt and sediment as it flows.

“It’s a hungry river,” Sando says of the Missouri downstream from Garrison Dam. “It’s looking to pick up its bed load and sediment load.”

Pick up, then deposit, as eroded riverbed and riverbank soils are transformed into sandbars and deltas.

The heavier sediment settles to form sandbars. The lighter silt remains in the river, however, until reaching a slow zone, notably the still, upper reaches of Lake Sakakawea or Lake Oahe, and deposits, forming deltas.

Williston, upstream along the headwaters of Lake Sakakawea, has sedimentation headaches similar to those plaguing Bismarck and Mandan.

Siltation forced the abandonment of a nearby agricultural irrigation project in the early 1970s. Buildup of the Williston delta raised the river bottom more than 17 feet by the early 2000s, resulting in a large swampy section of the river rife with mosquitos.

Andy Mork saw it coming in the summer of 1953, when he took the family on a drive to see Lake Sakakawea as it was forming from the closure of Garrison Dam.

After driving over the divide, he peered down into the Missouri River Valley and was surprised by what he saw – beautiful blue water, not the tan-brown “Old Muddy” river he had known since boyhood.
It was just starting to cultivate the appetite Sando would later describe as a hungry river.

Filling with sediment
Garrison Dam’s Lake Sakakawea, a colossus that ranks as the nation’s third-largest artificial reservoir, is slowly filling with sediment.

Every year, the lake collects silt and sediment that reduces its storage capacity by a volume estimated to equal a lake one-foot deep covering 25,900 acres.

That amounts to 0.11 percent of its storage capacity, needed for uses including flood protection, water supply and recreation, every year.

Engineers project that Lake Sakakawea will be completely filled with sediment in 900 years.

Most of that sediment comes from upstream on the Missouri River and Yellowstone River.

Most of the sediment is deposited on the lake’s upper reaches, but some of it accumulates at the base of the dam.
As of 2009, Sakakawea’s permanent pool had been reduced by 3.5 percent as a result of sedimentation.

The problem is much more severe – and pressing – for the smaller Missouri River reservoirs downstream in South Dakota.

For instance, Gavins Point Dam’s Lewis and Clark Lake, near Yankton, S.D., has lost 30 percent of its storage from sedimentation. The reservoir is projected to lose half its capacity by 2045, according to a 2009 study by the corps.

The Missouri River system of six reservoirs, with total storage equaling 73.1 million acre-feet, has lost 5 million acre-feet, or 6.8 percent.
The loss adds up at a yearly rate that equals storage equaling a flood 100 miles long, 10 miles wide, with an average depth of more than 7 feet, according to the Missouri Sedimentation Coalition, an advocacy group based in South Dakota.

Put another way, the yearly loss to the Missouri River system’s water supply from sedimentation would provide more than 800,000 people with more than 100 gallons of water a day for an entire year, according to the coalition’s figures.

The advocacy coalition was formed in 2001, spearheaded by officials from the city of Pierre, S.D., who were forced to buy out homes near the river that were threatened by water tables driven up by sediment buildup.

Bismarck’s water table also has increased because of sedimentation, but faces a more immediate problem from the threat of ice-jam floods exacerbated by the delta.

So far, no long-term plans have been devised to deal with the growing problems caused by sediment accumulation along the Missouri River.
But the corps is studying near-term steps to better protect areas around Bismarck-Mandan.

Severe erosion at a bend in the river by Hoge Island north of Bismarck caused a bank collapse that damaged several homes, including one washed away in the 2011 flood.

The corps is considering rip-rapping the area, a half-mile stretch of riverbank flanked by areas that have protection that worked well in the flood but must be repaired.

Officials also are looking at dredging an area of delta to prevent a large drainage canal in south Bismarck from backing up from an ice jam.

A sandbar at the mouth of the Heart River in Mandan poses another problem. The corps will work with state and local officials to monitor and mitigate ice buildup at the sediment sites.

As for a permanent solution to the sandbar problems bedeviling Bismarck-Mandan and nearby subdivisions, the corps maintains it lacks authority to tackle the issue.

“That is an issue for the locals to address if they feel they need to,” says John Remus, the corps’ Omaha District chief of hydraulic engineering.
A federal program to provide bank stabilization projects might help reduce riverbank erosion, Remus said. A task force will meet early in 2012 to explore the possibility.

Any project funding would require state and local matching funds, and would have to obtain environmental permits.

“Nothing is in the works at this time,” Remus says.

Questions remain
More than five decades after Garrison Dam began operations, its effects on downstream river dynamics have not been studied in depth.

Prompted by the record flood of 2011, the U.S. Geological Survey is proposing a major three-year study to explore issues including riverbank erosion and sediment accumulation.

Has the Missouri River reached a steady state, in terms of the sediment load it can carry? Or is the river, following the massive flood, still seeking to reach that balance?

“It’s something that’s been needed for a long time,” Joel Galloway, a research hydrologist for the USGS in Bismarck, says of the study.

“Streams are always trying to reach some kind of equilibrium,” he says. Garrison Dam altered the river’s natural equilibrium, including Lake Sakakawea’s capture of sediment.

“If we choke off that sediment, it will find other places,” Galloway says. “It still may be adjusting itself.”

The study will focus on the 70-mile, free-flowing reach from Garrison Dam to the headwaters of Lake Oahe.

The study’s findings, expected in 2014, could help guide steps, such as bank stabilization or delta dredging.

Otherwise, Galloway says, “They’re kind of going in blind, not knowing what to do. We hope to answer some good questions.”

Chuck Mork is among those who complain that it has become too difficult to obtain a permit for riverbank stabilization projects.

North Dakota officials believe that river management to create sandbars to provide habitat for endangered or threatened bird species, such as the least tern and piping plover, impede flood control.

Flushing water to create sandbars, Sando and others maintain, increases riverbank erosion, and therefore contributes to delta formation, which can exacerbate ice-jam flooding.

But officials with the corps and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service argue that managing the river to benefit birds does not sacrifice riverbanks or aggravate flooding.

“Flows out of the dam have very little if anything to do with endangered species protection,” says Carol Aron, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Bismarck.

Nonetheless, Sando and Mork say, riverbank stabilization projects have stalled in the past decade as permits have become hard to obtain.

As of the late 1990s, less than a third of the 170 miles of riverbank from Garrison Dam to Lake Oahe were rip-rapped. The estimated cost of protecting the 10 percent of shoreline vulnerable to erosion was $13.8 million in 1997, or
$19.45 million in 2011 dollars.

“We’ve got plenty of sand and Fish and Wildlife wants more sand,” Sando says. “That’s why people love the river. It’s great for recreation.”

As for Andy Mork, who died in 2010, his son believes he would have been pleased to see how the rip-rap withstood the test of the record flood of 2011.

“He would have been very happy, with the results of the areas where the stabilization was done,” Chuck Mork says.

Patrick Springer reports for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

Protecting area’s water quality of top importance

The Fargo Water Treatment Plant processes 4 billion gallons of water each year. David Samson / Forum Communications Co.

Mary Jo Hotzler - Deputy Editor - The Forum

There are few things more essential to our lives than water. Our very survival depends on it.

So it stands to reason that when it comes to the water we drink and the water we rely on for recreation, quality matters.

But just how clean is the water you drink? More to the point, how safe is it?

Answering that question may not be as simple as you might think.

Sure, there are government standards and regulations in place to ensure that our water is worthy of consumption. But when it comes to measuring quality, the issue can get a bit muddy.

When water quality testers go about their business, there is no clear-cut, “yes” or “no” answer to the question of “Is this water clean?”

In fact, the water you drink almost certainly contains a miniscule concoction of chemicals – arsenic, nitrates and chloramine, to name a few.

But, when water treatment is done right and done well, none of those chemicals are enough to harm you.

And yet for some people, it’s still a scary proposition. That’s partly why home-filtration systems and bottled water have become so popular.

People want to drink clean water; they want their children to drink clean water. They’ll go to nearly any length to assure that happens.

That’s ultimately why we felt the issue of water quality was so important to explore here today.

But to really dive into the issue, you must go to the source: the rivers. It’s important that you understand how our daily activities affect the quality of water flowing into our rivers. It’s important that you then understand how the contents of our rivers have an effect on the water our cities are responsible for treating. And finally, it’s important to understand the role these treatment plants play in determining the quality of water that flows out of the tap in your kitchen sink.

Throughout Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, the issues are different and complex.

In western North Dakota, the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, continues to cause concern for some who question whether it may have a negative impact on that region’s water quality.

Head east and south, into North Dakota and South Dakota’s farm country, and there are potential water quality issues there as well. Potential pollutants that result from farming and ranching include sediment, nutrients, pathogens, pesticides, metals and salts.

In cities such as Fargo, Moorhead and Grand Forks, municipal runoff has the potential to diminish water quality.

In Minnesota’s lakes country, the quality of our recreational waters also is under attack by invasive species that, from an ecological standpoint, have the potential to turn our freshwater ecosystems upside down.

The lesson from all of this: Protecting our water quality is critical.

Unfortunately, it’s often an expensive proposition.

In the end, we know it’s worth it.

There are people in countries throughout the world who would sacrifice everything they own for a sip of the quality drinking water we have here in the Upper Midwest – even on our worst days.

It may not be perfect, it may not come to us easily, but by and large, the water we drink is clean and safe. And for that, we’re thankful. Let’s keep it that way.

Mary Jo Hotzler – Deputy Editor – The Forum

Continental bathtub

Red River Delta: The Red River enters Lake Winnipeg through a complex delta known as the Netley Marsh, seen here in August 2011. The river's mouth is about 34 miles northeast of Winnipeg and 550 river miles from its origin at Breckenridge, Minn. John Stennes / Forum Communications Co.

Lake Winnipeg a focus of Canadian concern

Devils Lake is an exception, but by and large water flows out of the Dakotas and Minnesota. Water flows into Manitoba.

Lake Winnipeg is a kind of bathtub collecting water from a huge area near the heart of North America. (The geographical center of the continent near Rugby, N.D., is in the Lake Winnipeg basin.)

Rivers feeding the lake pick up sediments and chemicals. Among these phosphorous is of special concern, because it fertilizes the lake, enabling huge algae blooms that consume oxygen and endanger other life in the lake — a process called eutrophication.

Some of this comes from the U.S. portion of the drainage basin. Although the Red River contributes a small share of the lake’s water, it contributes the largest share of phosphorous to the lake. Much of it comes from the Winnipeg urban area, which is drained by the Red River.

Non-native species reach the lake through these rivers, too. Carp entered Lake Winnipeg from the Red River; rainbow smelt arrived from rivers draining northwestern Ontario.

These factors have made Lake Winnipeg a focus of concern in Canada.

To most American Midwesterners, Lake Winnipeg is probably best known as the blue spot at the top of television weather maps.

To Canadians, Lake Winnipeg is “the sixth great lake.”

Protecting the lake has been at the heart of Canadian objections to water development projects in North Dakota, including the Garrison Diversion project and a Devils Lake outlet.

Mike Jacobs – Project coordinator – Living With Water

Bobbi Berberich DuChamp - Forum Communications

Continental drainage system
Lake Winnipeg has the largest drainage area of any freshwater lake in the world, almost 400,000 square miles.

Water reaches Lake Winnipeg from the Rocky Mountain front in Alberta, the farmlands of Saskatchewan, the forests of northwestern Ontario and the Red River Valley of North Dakota, Minnesota and Manitoba. A small portion or northeastern South Dakota drains to the lake. So does Montana’s Glacier National Park. Water is discharged from the lake through the Nelson River into Hudson Bay.

Bobbi Berberich DuChamp - Forum Communications Co.

Lake Winniepeg facts

– Large: 9,465 square miles/11th largest freshwater lake in the world.

– Long: 258 miles south to north.

– Shallow: Average depth 39 feet (118 feet at the narrows between north and south basins).

– Wild: Area on the eastern shore considered for UNESCO World Heritage Site.

– Valuable: Fishing produces about $30 million (Canadian) yearly, much of it by native fishermen. Recreation and tourism contribute $100 million. The lake also functions as a reservoir, producing electricity, some of it exported to the United States.

– Valued: More than 23,000 people live in 30 communities, including 11 aboriginal communities, on its shores.

– Vulnerable: Huge drainage area means lake takes in large amounts of sediment, fertilizers, run-off from hog operations and municipal wastes. These factors combine to cause occasional huge algae blooms that endanger the lake’s ecosystem.

High water levels pose threat to Sheyenne River

The Baldhill Dam at Lake Ashtabula north of Valley City, N.D. The Sheyenne River forms the lake behind the dam. Photos by David Samson / Forum Communications Co.

Kristen M. Daum - Reporter - The Forum

VALLEY CITY, N.D. – The Sheyenne River is one of the healthiest rivers in North Dakota, but at least one biologist fears that vitality could diminish as residents seek relief from bloated water tables.

“The Sheyenne River is a North Dakota natural resource. … Some of the things we find there we don’t find many other places,” said Andre Delorme, a Valley City State University professor. “The Sheyenne really is a gem in this state.”

Delorme has been studying this aquatic jewel for more than 15 years and serves as director of the Prairie Waters Education and Research Center in Kathryn, about 18 miles south of Valley City.

With North Dakota’s climactic wet cycle raging on, Delorme said he continues to see “unbelievable” water levels coming down the Sheyenne, including the late summer flood that inundated the lower river valley last August.

Delorme said the high water by itself doesn’t necessarily harm the Sheyenne’s aquatic residents, but he fears other long-lasting effects – such as erosion and chemical imbalance – could have far-reaching consequences.

Continued releases from Devils Lake into the Sheyenne River are the biggest threat to the Sheyenne’s vitality, Delorme said, and the consequences could start appearing in the tiniest of places.

Among 60 river sites across North Dakota, Delorme’s research has found the Sheyenne River to have the best mussel population in the state, he said.

Mussels depend on good water quality to survive, and they help promote continued quality by filtering river water through their bodies, Delorme said.

While many species of mussels are endangered across North America, the healthy quality of the Sheyenne River allows mussels a place to thrive.

Of the 15 species of mussels found in North Dakota, 11 reside in the Sheyenne River, Delorme said.

The river’s health also attracts unique diversity in its aquatic population, including various species of fish, leeches, crayfish and insects, he said.

But the Sheyenne’s natural balance is slowly deteriorating because of relentless floods and continued releases from Devils Lake.

With massive amounts of water rushing through the river valley during floods, the Sheyenne riverbed is slowly eroding.
While that may benefit residents by broadening the river channel over time, Delorme said it’s potentially bothersome to aquatic life.

Erosion churns up the soil and scours out the natural riverbed, he said.

The onslaught of Devils Lake water sparks greater concern for both biologists and residents along the Sheyenne River.

Even though the upper Sheyenne River passes just south of Devils Lake, the two bodies of water are inherently separate and do not naturally interact.

But because of the threat of an uncontrolled spillover at Devils Lake, North Dakota officials devised the solution of slowly emptying the lake by way of man-made drainage outlets into the Sheyenne River.

Delorme and others fear possible damage to the Sheyenne’s natural water quality, especially as officials prepare to open more outlets on the east end of Devils Lake this year.

Devils Lake water contains varying levels of sulfates, a natural mineral that isn’t dangerous in small doses but can cause problems at higher levels.

Officials at the North Dakota Department of Health have said residents who use water from the Sheyenne could see minimal digestive impacts from the higher sulfate levels brought on by the Devils Lake outlet.

To maintain taste quality, drinking water would also need to be purified more thoroughly to compensate for the sulfates.

But on a biological level, Delorme said the increased sulfates could potentially be devastating to the Sheyenne’s inhabitants, depending on organisms’ tolerance to higher doses of the mineral.

For instance, various species of fish would likely survive against the sulfates, but the minerals could impede their ability to reproduce, eventually diminishing the river’s fish population, Delorme said.

The sulfates could also target the Sheyenne’s unique mussel community.

Delorme said three of the 11 mussel species in the Sheyenne will likely be tolerant enough to withstand the sulfates.

“The other eight, I really worry about,” he said. “Some you only find in the Sheyenne; that’s their main home in the state.”

The well-being of mussels and other aquatic in the life is a notable indicator of the Sheyenne’s water quality, one that the valley’s residents shouldn’t overlook, Delorme cautions.

“If these organisms are dying, that’s telling you something is wrong with the water quality,” he said. “As a citizen of North Dakota, the Sheyenne River is a natural part of our state that we need to protect.”

Kristen Daum reports for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

When oil, water collide

Teri Finneman - Multimedia reporter - Forum Communications Co.

Western ND drilling practices prompt water quality concerns

BISMARCK – As oil activity increases in western North Dakota, concerns about the environment and water protection are growing as well.

State regulators take concerns about water quality in the Oil Patch “very seriously” and have safeguards in place to protect potable water, the assistant director of the state Department of Mineral Resources said.

The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a national study to identify potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources.

Killdeer is one of the case study sites.

But state officials insist the state “has proven more than capable” of regulating the oil and gas industry and ensuring drilling and fracturing operations “are conducted in an environmentally sound manner.”

“We believe United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation of any hydraulic fracturing processes is unnecessary, especially in North Dakota because of our own statutes, rules and programs that are already in place to regulate the full life of hydraulic fracturing,” the state Industrial Commission said in a November letter to the federal Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring serve on the commission and signed the letter.

The North Dakota Health Department does not see or anticipate the potential problems with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that have been reported in other states, said Dennis Fewless, director of the Division of Water Quality.

Fracking is a technique long used by the oil and gas industry to free oil and gas from rock.

“We’ve got deeper formations,” he said. “I think our Oil and Gas Division does a very good job of controlling and regulating and monitoring the drilling and fracking practices in the state.”

Fracturing fluids – water, sand and chemicals – are injected as much as two miles below the ground, said Monte Besler, a Williston-based hydrologic fracturing consultant.

In between that and fresh water aquifers near the surface is “a lot of geological protection,” he said.

The state also has casing (pipe) and concrete regulations that oil companies must follow so water sources are protected during fracking, said Bruce Hicks, assistant director of the state Department of Mineral Resources.

The department is not concerned about contamination from the actual act of fracking, he said. Mechanical problems and casing failure could cause contamination, but the State Industrial Commission has approved rules that require testing to ensure casing can handle the pressure, he said.

“We’ve had no instances where we’ve ever had a fracture into any potable waters in the state,” Hicks said.

Water testing
Bismarck attorney Derrick Braaten said his office gets calls with concerns about contaminants from the oil industry making their way into the water system.

His practice focus includes oil and gas law for landowners and mineral owners, as well as environmental law.

“It’s really difficult to establish that there has been water contamination,” he said. “It’s very easy for the companies to stand back and say, ‘There’s no problem with water contamination here.
You can’t prove it was us.’ ”

Hicks said there could be many reasons for well contamination that aren’t oil and gas related.

“We had huge amounts of snowfall and runoff and rain, so there’s a lot of moisture in the ground, and it could be moving contaminants that are already in the system from livestock or whatever into it,” he said.

He advised people with concerns to have testing done.

“If it is from some kind of oil and gas activity, we want to know about that, too,” he said.

The Health Department has received calls from people concerned about their water quality, but it hasn’t found a situation where there is a direct connection between the wells in question and oil activity, Fewless said.

There’s always debate about what the water quality was before oil activity moved in, he said, so he recommends people with concerns obtain a water sample and get it analyzed to establish a baseline.

“So, if you have any questions as to some activity that has degraded the quality of your well, then you’ve got hard data to negotiate with,” he said. “If you don’t have any of that upfront, then it’s all speculation as to: Has the quality changed from activity in your area?”

Southwestern District Health Unit in Dickinson has received calls to collect water samples for testing, said Kevin Pavlish, head of environmental health.

The health unit works with the state Health Department, which provides the collection containers and runs tests on the samples, he said.

“The intent is not necessarily to show that there’s any current contamination but to get baseline information about the chemical quality of those wells, so at some point in time down the road, if the quality does change, it might indicate that change was caused by something in the area,” Pavlish said.

Pavlish doesn’t get a lot of requests for testing, which he attributes partly to the cost. A routine chemical test used to be $20 years ago but is now more than $100, he said.

In addition, oil activity has been in the area long enough that collecting water samples in some areas now wouldn’t provide a baseline to note any potential difference pre- and post-oil activity.

However, some people in Dunn, Stark, Golden Valley and Billings counties who want to make comparisons are in luck.

In the 1980s, county water resource boards received funding to do well registrations, and chemical analysis tests were done on a number of wells, Pavlish said. The health unit has these files and, therefore, some baseline information already.

The Health Department has recently hired three staffers to work full time on oil field activities as environmental scientists or engineers, Fewless said.

Previously, there was one full-time employee who received part-time help.

When there are issues like tanker rollovers or pipeline breaks, these employees work to ensure releases are contained and cleaned up, he said. Once the new employees are in the field, the department will determine if the extra help is enough, he said.

“If it’s not, we’re going to have to reprioritize and maybe pull people off of other areas and focus on this,” he said. “You have to set your priorities in this day and age of limited budgets. Right now, this is our highest priority that we need to address.”

Spills can’t be eliminated in any industry, and the Health Department has had “very good” cooperation with the oil industry, Fewless said.

“Once they do have a spill, they are very proactive to clean it up and do it to our satisfaction,” he said. “That has been a good thing.”

North Dakota is ahead of the curve nationally as far as states that require fracking information to be posted on, a chemical disclosure registry, said Mike Paque, executive director of the Ground Water Protection Council in Oklahoma City.

The State Industrial Commission approved this rule last month. Visitors to the site can look up fracking reports for specific wells and see the chemicals used.

Some oil companies doing business in North Dakota already voluntarily post this information. The mandatory requirement is expected to take effect April 1. Companies will need to post their reports on the website within 60 days of pumping.

Donald Nelson of Keene, spokesman for the Dakota Resource Council, called the required disclosure “a step in the right direction.”

If people are going to test for fracking fluid contamination, they need to know what to test for, he said.

FracFocus is managed by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. The website includes information on hydraulic fracturing, chemicals used and groundwater protection.

The EPA is expected to release an initial report from its study of hydraulic fracturing and drinking water resources by the end of this year, with a final report released in 2014.

Teri Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.

Region faces water quality challenges

Inner workings of the ozone generator show the corona discharge activity that breaks the oxygen molecules apart to reform as ozone that is used for disinfection at the Fargo Water Treatment Plant. David Samson / Forum Communications Co.

William C. Marcil - Chairman Forum Communications Company

Here is the fourth installment of our series called “Living with Water.”

This week, we look at a critical issue, the quality of our water.

Stories and photographs in this section consider the quality of the water that we use in our homes – and how it’s kept fresh and safe. We also consider the water that we play in – and how the lakes we enjoy so much are kept clean.

Also in this section are articles about such issues as water on the land and safe disposal of water used in industry, including the booming oil industry in western North Dakota.

There’s also an informative page about Canadian concerns for Lake Winnipeg, which receives water from much of our region.

Earlier sections of this special project have presented background on the lakes, rivers and groundwater resources of our region and examined flooding and drought.

Next week’s fifth and final issue will draw all of this together in a far-reaching discussion of how we manage our water resources across river basins and state and national boundaries.

More than two dozen journalists at Forum Communications Co. properties in three states have contributed to this special series.

The series appears in all Forum Communications Co. newspapers in North Dakota – The Forum, Grand Forks Herald, Jamestown Sun and Dickinson Press – as well as in the Daily Republic in Mitchell, S.D., and the Detroit Lakes Newspapers in Minnesota.

FCC broadcast outlets in Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck and Minot have aired material from this series.

And of course, “Living with Water” appears on our company website.

Next week, we’ll include some observations from Forum Communications Co. management about what we’ve learned from this project and what might be done to help us live with our water resources.

We welcome your comments by email to Mike Jacobs, the project director ( or by U.S. mail to Living with Water, PO Box 6008, Grand Forks, ND 58206.

Copies of the complete series are available by returning the coupon in today’s section or by using our online order form.

Thank you and good reading.

William C. Marcil – Chairman of the Board

Primed sources

Cattle drink water provided by the Kingbrook Rural Water System in South Dakota. South Dakota Association of Rural Water Systems

Mikkel Pates - Reporter - Agweek

Residents more reliant on rural water systems for quality water

In recent decades, rural residents in the Dakotas and Minnesota have largely replaced wells with rural water systems as sources of drinking water for themselves and their animals.

This is so even when there is an abundance of groundwater and few incidents of pesticide and fertilizer contamination.

Today, 33 systems supply an estimated 25 percent of North Dakota’s population, including some 200 small towns. South Dakota has 26 systems in operation and another coming on line in July, supplying together some two-thirds of the state’s residents.

“We’ve found we’re literally plumbing the state with regional water systems,” said Dennis N. Davis, executive director of the Madison-based South Dakota Association of Rural Water Districts.

Minnesota has six rural water systems, all on the state’s western border.

For some rural residents, water from the ground tastes bad and their animals don’t like it either. For others, there isn’t much water and it tastes bad, too.

Good water rare
“In North Dakota, our groundwater sources are abundant, but we do have high iron and manganese in the water,” said Eric Volk, executive director of the North Dakota Rural Water Systems Association in Bismarck. “There is a band from the northwest to the southeast that is high in arsenic. And in the southwest it’s pretty ‘salty’ – plenty of it, but the cattle won’t drink it. You can’t cook with it.”

In Minnesota, most rural residents continue to use well water for drinking purposes, except along the western border.

There residents have similar problems as rural North Dakotans with iron, manganese or sulfate in the water, which aren’t a health threat but are “pretty unpleasant” and harsh on bathtubs and other household appliance, said Ruth Ann Hubbard, executive director of the Elbow Lake-based Rural Water Association.

She said livestock, especially young animals, are heavily dependent on rural water.

In the state’s northwest, along the Red River, heavy clay soils don’t yield sufficient water, and the deeper soils have the old sea-bed water that is salty. In the southwest, the issue whether there’s water available at all, or sometimes nitrate problems related to “land use issues.”

In South Dakota, the majority of the state’s dairy cows, beef cattle and other livestock are now watered through rural water.

“We have more livestock drinking rural water than people,” Dennis said.

“If we’d have had this discussion 15 years ago, I’d have said this isn’t going to pay out for the cow-calf guy,” he said. “But we have droughts. Dams dry up. The quality of water that runs into stock dams can be pretty atrocious, and guys can have vet bills they couldn’t stand if the cattle aren’t doing well.

The additional weight gain of the calf more than compensates.”

Late start
Rural water systems in the northern Red River Valley were among the region’s first.

First in North Dakota was the Grand Forks-Traill system, based in Clifford, in 1969. First in Minnesota was the Kittson-Marshall system, based in Donaldson, that went on-line in 1975.

The first systems in South Dakota were the Butte-Meade system, based in Newell, and the Rapid Valley system, based in Rapid City, in the state’s western side, both of which began in 1972.

Many systems rely on groundwater, but some pull water from rivers or dams, such as the Langdon, N.D., system that uses water from the Mount Carmel Dam on the Pembina River. Some serve not just residents of remote rural areas but those living near urban areas, removing nuisance minerals and bacteria.

Rural water systems would have happened earlier than 1969, Volk said, but several technologies made it possible – the development of large plows that could place pipe in the ground miles at a time, instead of backhoe trenches, and new inventions with PVC pipe, as well as engineering techniques to move pipe.

Rural water systems continue to advance today. In South Dakota, the Lewis & Clark system is near completion in rural areas near Sioux Falls, the state’s biggest city. In North Dakota, the state’s growing northwest is also in need of rural water.

“With the oil activity in the western half of the state, some of our systems have been approached to serve ‘man camps,’” Volk said. “And around Minot, with the flooding, people are having to build homes on the outskirts of town and need a source for water.”

Fertilizer, manure
Groundwater contamination in the region is not unusual, according to several state regulators, but contamination levels are often very low.

Trace amounts of nitrates, found in fertilizer and animal manure, is common.
In North Dakota, they are the most common, according to Norene Bartelson, an environmental scientist with the state Health Department.

“We find that in many wells, but generally in low levels,” she said. “That may not be due to field application of fertilizers. More often it’s associated with a livestock feedlot.”

The Health Department monitors shallow aquifers that are sensitive to contamination, primarily in the eastern and central parts of the state.

In 2011, a typical year, seven of 111 wells sampled had nitrate levels exceeding 10 parts per million, the federal standard for municipal drinking water. The levels were, for the most part, high enough to harm infants but not adults.

Nitrate levels also exceed federal standards in some vulnerable Minnesota aquifers, according to Dan Stoddard, assistant director of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide and Fertilizer Monitoring Division, which monitors wells and surface water.

One department report indicated that 10 to 13 percent of wells in vulnerable aquifer areas are above the 10 ppm standard.

“I wouldn’t pin it on livestock,” Stoddard said, noting that it could involve other practices.

South Dakota ground water can have similar problems.

Davis, the rural water association head, said farmers generally apply no more fertilizer and pesticides than they need, but sometimes runoff can create problems for groundwater. “I don’t know that we notice huge areas of farming practices that are causing us consistent water problems.”

Pesticide contamination is also present, but not at harmful levels.

Bartelson said the most common pesticide contaminant is “picloram,” an active ingredient in the herbicide Tordon used primarily on leafy spurge. The chemical is very mobile in the soil, and stays a long time but is not very toxic to humans.

North Dakota’s major river systems are tested by the state Department of Agriculture for more than 180 pesticide compounds, but none have shown up in significant amounts.

“Most of what we find is very low parts per billion compared to its toxicity,” said Jessica Johnson, an environmental scientist who works with the program.
Stoddard said it “isn’t really surprising” to find pesticide in water, but considering the number of pesticides the agency is looking for and how sensitive tests can be, it is “impressive and surprising” how few are found.

Pesticide contamination, in particular, is dropping though at different rates in the state, he said. “The most vulnerable areas are the central sand plains, and in southeast Minnesota in the shallow bedrock.” The northwest part of the state has less shallow groundwater and is less vulnerable.

Stoddard isn’t willing to say why pesticide levels have been declining but said the promotion of best management practices for pesticides as well as label changes have had some impact.
Rural residents are working to reduce contamination.

The Wellhead Program, part of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, helps states educate the public, including farmers who may be farming close to outlying wellheads used for public supplies.

In some cases a local rural water system will purchase some property around the wellhead and lease it back to farmers with stipulations on the types of crops, amounts of chemicals or number of animals on the land, to avoid contamination.

In other cases, farmers work together.

“They may work with an adjacent landowner to see if they might put something into Conservation Reserve Program or limit the amount of fertilizer near the wellhead,” Volk said.

Mikkel Pates reports for Agweek.

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.