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Aquifer contamination could be 'catastrophic' to Dilworth, Moorhead, water plant supervisor warns

Moorhead Public Service, which supplies water to the city, raises concerns with their neighbor's planning commission

Dilworth downtown
Downtown Dilworth.
Forum file photo
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DILWORTH — Moorhead Public Service Water Plant Supervisor Marc Pritchard told the Dilworth Planning Commission it could be "catastrophic" if the nearby Buffalo Aquifer that supplies water to residents of both cities becomes unusable.

He appeared before the commissioners on Wednesday night, April 6, to emphasize the need to protect the shallow aquifer that is just over a mile east of the growing city's border along Minnesota Highway 336 and Clay County Highway 11.

The aquifer, which in recent years has provided about 25% of the MPS water supply, was used more often last summer in the drought when use increased to about 38%.

MPS usually pulls about 66% of its water from the Red River, and during the drought it was forced to drop that to 62%.

Pritchard said they are also becoming concerned about increasing levels of contaminants in the Red River water, calling the river "unreliable."

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"The river is changing," he said.

Pritchard called the aquifer, which is about a mile wide and runs for about 35 miles north and south into Wilkin County, their "ace in the hole."

He warned it could easily become contaminated if protections aren't continued as the water table reaches 10 to 15 feet below the ground in many locations, making it more susceptible to contaminants.

Pritchard urged commissioners to be careful about land use and suggested denying "any unnecessary development that puts the aquifer in jeopardy."

When asked if farming practices were having any effect on the aquifer, Pritchard said, "Right now, it's not a problem." He noted MPS will continue to check for nitrates and monitor chemical levels.

As for private landowners over and near the aquifer, Pritchard said the state is involved in the digging of any large wells, and there are state and county regulations on sewage septic systems.

Commissioner Steve Astrup asked what MPS would want from the planning commission.

Pritchard's suggestions for the city approaching 5,000 residents as it spreads eastward toward the aquifer were:

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  • Banning underground tanks that could leak.
  • Preventing hazardous material storage.
  • Limiting zoning uses, as the request by the Red River Valley Co-op for a building along Highway 336 initially prompted the discussion.
  • Installing safer municipal water and sewage systems rather than septic systems
    for residential or commercial growth in that area to minimize bacterial contamination risks.
  • Keeping lines of communications open and strong and consulting with MPS if issues arise.

That would mean not allowing, for example, any gas stations or automotive shops near the aquifer, Pritchard said.
Mayor Chad Olson, who serves on the commission, made the point that if protective steps are taken, the city wouldn't need to stop expansion to the east.

Olson said the city had to stop using its own wells because of unsafe arsenic levels. Thus, the city started a partnership with MPS in the early 2000s before having the utility provide all of the city's water starting in 2011.

The commission was impressed with Pritchard's presentation, and Chairwoman Lisa Kilde noted she had no idea about the vulnerability of the aquifer and what needs to be done to protect it.

Pritchard said the aquifer is one of the top two "pristine" aquifers in Minnesota.

He said aquifer protection plans that date back decades have kept it that way.

Commissioner Crystal Jamerson said she appreciates simply turning on the spigot and enjoying the taste of the water, adding people she knows from other communities complain about their water.

Astrup suggested MPS could present an annual report to the commissioners to relay any concerns and improve communication.

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