GRAND FORKS — On a cheery Monday morning, a hulking truck — akin to a giant vacuum with a steering wheel — sits in the middle of an intersection a couple blocks off University Avenue in northern Grand Forks.

Jesse Weber, a service worker at Grand Forks’ public works department, presses a few buttons on a panel near the front bumper while Brad Brouillet, a lead service worker, steadies a large metal pipe that extends down into the sewers beneath North 19th Street. The vacuum whines to life and sucks a bolus of leaves, branches and other debris out of the drain.

In all, it takes about 5 minutes to clean one “catch basin” — a small grate cut into the curb that drains water into the city’s broader sewer system and, ultimately, into the Red River — and Weber and Brouillet hit about a dozen similar intersections before they clocked out for the day.

They do the same, but on a much larger scale, each fall in the pump stations scattered across the city, using the truck to suck up waist-high debris from a “pit” in each station where sand, clay, cigarette butts, wayward toys and other garbage pile up.

“Whatever’s on the streets and goes down the gutter, that’s what ends up in those pits,” Brouillet said.

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In a parallel system designed to collect and clean wastewater from homes and businesses, city workers routinely “pull rags” from pump stations. Those rags, Brouillet explained, more often than not are the sanitary wipes that advertise themselves to be “flushable.” While technically true, "flushable" doesn’t mean the wipes dissolve once they’re down the drain.

Brad Brouillet, left, lead service worker for the city of Grand Forks storm water department, pulls a manhole cover for inspection of the storm sewer in the 500 block of N. 19th St. June 21, 2021 with Jesse Weber.    Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Brad Brouillet, left, lead service worker for the city of Grand Forks storm water department, pulls a manhole cover for inspection of the storm sewer in the 500 block of N. 19th St. June 21, 2021 with Jesse Weber. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Brouillet, Weber and their colleagues have to yank those wipes — and whatever else — out of sewer pipes on Tuesdays and Fridays each week. They can also, Brouillet says wryly, sometimes tell when residents have illegally attached their basement sump pumps directly to the wastewater system in the street because that water is considerably cleaner than the rest. Grand Forks’ wastewater heads to the city’s newfangled treatment plant north of town and, ultimately, also goes into the Red.

So, how much of the bacteria, debris and other contaminants Grand Forks residents put into their water ends up in the Red? And is any of it affecting the health of the river?

Ultimately, the city’s stormwater systems don’t collect all the debris that washes into Grand Forks’ sewers, which means some of it ends up in the river. Layers of chemical treatments at the wastewater plant mean that, ultimately, the wastewater that pours into the river is difficult for the naked eye to differentiate from clean water, but it’s not perfectly clean.

The North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality issues permits to cities like Grand Forks that set upper limits for nitrogen and other contaminants that end up in the river. The goal, ultimately, is to keep it clean enough for different “uses” defined by the department, such as swimming, as a municipal water source, for agriculture, industry and so on.

“It’s not saying that there’s no impact,” Karl Rockeman, the head of the department’s water quality division, said in an interview. “It’s just saying that the amount of the impact is still at a level where the uses of the river is protected.”

Currently, the only use for which the department urges caution is eating Red River fish because of relatively high levels of mercury found there. Department staff advise people to only eat relatively small amounts of fish caught in the river in a given month, based on the size and species of fish — no more than four meals of 16-inch walleye, for instance.

Rockeman characterized the river’s health as “good” and said the metrics department staff use to make that rough determination haven’t changed much in the past 10 or so years.

“One of the biggest impacts or changes to water quality is often Mother Nature herself, depending on what we have for weather conditions. If we have extreme weather events that obviously can carry a lot of contaminants off the landscape into the river,” he explained. “And if we have very dry conditions, like we're seeing now, then a lot of those naturally occurring constituents in the water just get concentrated because of the limited volume of the stream.”