WEST FARGO – Thursday's St. Patrick's Day dusting of snow gave residents a sniff of reprieve after a week's worth of foul-smelling lagoon omissions. But the odors are likely to return with the warmer temperatures expected this weekend.
The foul odors emanate from West Fargo's 460-acre waste stabilization ponds near 12th Avenue Northwest.
During the winter, the lagoons lose all oxygen and sludge builds up along the bottom, said Public Works Director Chris Brungardt. When the temperatures warm up, water on the bottom nearest the sewage starts churning to the top, resulting in nasty fumes.
What really puts the stink in the city's stench through West Fargo and even into parts of Fargo on a windy day is the emission of hydrogen sulfide, said Terry Rust, wastewater lab coordinator for West Fargo.
"It's a heavy gas, so it stays close to the ground, then the wind pushes it along," Rust said. "We've never had anyone get sick, but the smell is obnoxious."
He said quickly warming temperatures stimulate algae growth. The algae then eats up organisms that cause the smell. Colder weather means less bacterial action and the smell hangs around longer, Rust said. If the temp falls 10 degrees, algae appetites drop 50 percent, Russ said.
"Once it gets warm, then every day now [the smell] should get better," he said. "We just have to have a little patience to get through this time, but it should only last one to two weeks."
Obnoxious, but not harmful
West Fargo lagoon odors are monitored by the state Department of Health with a tool called a scentometer, but they've never registered a high enough reading to cause alarm, said the agency's Terry L. O'Clair.
"The odor certainly doesn't treat the sinuses very nice," he said. "If you're sensitive, you'll notice it."
The sweet smells of confections at Sandy's Donuts on Main Avenue in West Fargo isn't enough to overpower the lagoon smells drifting into town on a northwest wind.
Employee Francie Erdmann said the stench is often discussed, mostly by fellow staff but also by drive-thru customers. "We promise it's not us!" she said, laughing.
Danell Phelps, owner of Ladybug Latte down the street, moved to North Dakota from the West Coast. When she opened her drive-up coffee shop, she was surprised by spring's smelly ritual. Now, Phelps says she is more used the barnyard-like stench.
"It usually only lasts a week or two; it's not horrible," she said.
Lori Briggs has lived in West Fargo for about five years and moved about a year ago into the Goldenwood addition just east of the lagoons. She said the stench has been a popular topic among her neighbors, but she's become somewhat accustomed to it as long as it doesn't linger too long.
West Fargo Schools spokeswoman Heather Konschak said no school has reported issues with the lagoon smells.
Last year, neighbors Sallie Jo Edie and Jim Burgard, who live just yards from the lagoons, said the lagoon smell has long lingered and hoped the city would clean them.
Rust said the city's primary lagoon cells haven't been cleaned or dredged since they were built 55 years ago.
"Usually, that is done every 20 to 25 years," Rust said.
Mayor Rich Mattern, who was out of town this week, said he hasn't received any complaints about the smell but, historically gets "a few" every year. He said the annual smell is a problem the city has tried to solve since he became mayor more than a decade ago.
In an effort to keep up with growth and lessen the strain on its sewage lagoons, the city added a 60-acre lagoon in 2014.
"I thought that new lagoon, the new shell that we added, was supposed to really help with that problem," Mattern said Thursday, March 17.
He said the city uses lagoons to deal with its sewage as a more cost-effective solution over a water treatment plant, which would cost close to $70 million.
"I keep telling people we're doing the best we can," Mattern said. "If you want to spend millions on a wastewater treatment plant, we can look at that option. But that is going to be a cost that is passed on. I think we need to keep looking for other solutions to the problem."
Brungardt has been working with Moore Engineering to study the cost and feasibility of cleaning the lagoons, a project he said will cost the city between $4 million and $6 million.
To clean the lagoon, crews dry it out, then dig out the leftover sludge or use a vacuum-like device to suck it out. The sludge must then be disposed of either in a landfill or as a dry-land application.
The sludge can be used as a fertilizer, Rust said, but application can be tricky-too much burns the land-and nothing can be planted on the land for a certain amount of time.
West Fargo passed a half-cent sales tax increase in 2014 to pay for infrastructure, including the 2014 lagoon, but most of the money is already planned for other projects. City Administrator Tina Fisk said that although the lagoon cleaning was not in this year's budget, the city would likely pay for it through a bond.
In the meantime, Brungardt said he hopes people can be patient.
"Every city has lagoons, but a lot of times West Fargo gets pointed out for these things," he said. "We're never going to get rid of that smell, but hopefully it won't be as pungent as it was in the past. I really, truly think the smell is less and duration is shorter. Maybe it's me having wishful thinking."