PARSHALL, N.D. - Al Christianson peered into a deep tank of churning liquid and wondered if he was witnessing the solution to this community's drinking water crisis.
Christianson was testing a special mixture formulated by a Minneapolis chemist to draw enough sediment out of Parshall's well water to meet federal and state drinking water standards.
This town of 981 lost its primary source of water last fall when its intake pipe in Lake Sakakawea was left high and dry by a drought now in its sixth year.
Parshall's intake pipe was later extended two-thirds of a mile at a cost of $2.4 million. But water drawn from a bay of the shallow reservoir, half empty from drought, is so loaded with sediment that it's undrinkable.
So the town is forced to draw water from its old well deep underground - a reliable source, but high in sodium and sulfates.
Parshall is just one of several communities along the Missouri River - which supplies water to one in six North Dakotans - struggling to maintain its water supply.
Parshall's well water, although meeting minimum state and federal health standards, tastes salty and sometimes has an unpleasant odor.
"If you turn the faucet on, it smells like minnows," said Joani Tucker, who works at an office in Parshall. "It just has a terrible smell to it."
Most people in town buy reverse-osmosis treated water at the local grocery store, where a steady stream of customers stops to refill plastic jugs for 39 cents a gallon.
Richard Bolkan, the owner of Parshall Food Pride and the town's mayor, said townspeople shun tap water.
"Probably three-fourths think it's terrible and it'll hurt 'em," he said. "It's just got a bad taste to it."
Residents with high blood pressure have been advised not to drink the water because of the high sodium content. And the sulfates can cause digestive problems until the body adjusts, said Christianson, who runs the water treatment plant and other city services.
Because the local water now meets minimum standards, and therefore doesn't qualify as an emergency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided it won't provide further financial assistance.
Any further extension of the intake, or a significant upgrade of the treatment plant, would cost millions of dollars.
City officials hope to find a cheaper answer. They're so eager that on the day Christianson stood on a catwalk, looking down at a tank of greenish water, his assistant got up at 5 a.m. to drive to pick up the new mix of chemicals.
But it would take time to learn whether the mixture worked - water from Lake Sakakawea, almost 10 miles away, takes hours to travel to the city treatment plant. "If that is not successful, we'll have to continue with our well water," said city auditor Loren Hoffman.
About 170 miles downstream from Parshall, in Fort Yates, residents woke up one morning three years ago to water faucets that had gone dry.
Water flow was restored three days later, on Thanksgiving Day, but it took several more days for acceptable water quality to return.
Lake Oahe had dwindled to a river, and the river had changed course overnight. Schools closed and the reservation's kidney dialysis unit shut down, forcing more than 20 patients to be moved to Bismarck 50 miles away.
The Standing Rock Sioux have struggled since then to keep the water running. Last winter, workers had to maintain a constant vigil to make sure temporary water lines snaking above ground didn't freeze. In warmer weather, they had to battle thick mud and sand.
It has cost more than $3 million to keep the water flowing, including construction of a small causeway to extend Fort Yates' water intake and pumping system 1,800 feet to the river's edge.
"It ended up being quite a construction project," said Ralph Walker, the tribe's water systems manager.
The new setup doubled the town's pumping costs. Workers monitor the new well, formed by sheet metal, daily to ensure that the water keeps flowing.
The unexpected cost of maintaining Fort Yates' water intake diverted money budgeted to upgrade drinking water supplies in smaller communities at Standing Rock.
Now those communities, with a combined population of more than 3,000, must wait for better water, Walker said.
"They're just having to make do," he said, with water high in iron and manganese, which require high chlorination.
Fort Yates is built on the shore of Lake Oahe, now a vast delta of silt washed downstream, with the river meandering through the flats with a caprice that worries residents, who fear it suddenly could change course.
"It could happen anytime," Walker said. "The river's been known to change overnight. We'd have to chase the river with pumps and pipe."
Because of the uncertainty, people in remote areas or those without transportation, especially the elderly, take precautions.
"People are storing water in jugs and their bathtubs," Walker said.
If the level of Lake Sakakawea keeps falling this summer, several more communities will be at risk of losing their water supplies.
Garrison, a town of 1,318, lost its water supply in March 2004 when ice crushed its intake pipe. The town spent $1 million to fix intake problems caused by low water, and residents recently had to boil their water while the treatment plant was altered to handle the cloudy water's high turbidity.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., introduced federal legislation earlier this year seeking authorization for $60 million to revitalize water systems in cities coping with the record-low lakes.
"In fact, many of these challenges are caused directly by the Corps of Engineers' operation of the Missouri River dams," Conrad said. "As a result, it is only appropriate that the corps be part of the solution to North Dakota's water needs."
Meanwhile, the corps is sending divers into the river this month to inspect intake pipes in up to 15 communities in North Dakota and South Dakota.
"We have relatively good information on most or all of these intakes," said Stewart Cook, the corps' point man in maintaining water access. "We have it plus or minus a foot."
In some instances, he said, that gap could be critical in keeping the pipes free of sediment. Officials don't want to be caught off guard, as they were with Fort Yates, Stewart said.
Slowly, as the silty water traveled from Lake Sakakawea to Parshall, Al Christianson learned the results of the new chemical mixture.
The water quality verdict: still too cloudy to drink.
"We'll have to come up with something else," he said.
A few weeks later, the city hit upon something else: making the intake adjustable, so it can be raised and lowered as needed.
Perhaps as early as this week, construction divers will install an adjustable pipe. Tests indicate that raising it 10 feet should draw water that the city's plant can adequately treat.
"We don't know what the future holds," Hoffman said. "We hope at least in the short term we can go back to using lake water."
Earlier this summer, townspeople joked about whether they should plant their gardens because of the high-sodium well water. Although Christianson runs the treatment plant, he doesn't like the taste of the water he can deliver.
In the meantime, he tries to see a glass that is half full.
"You don't need to add salt to your cooking water," he said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522