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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press Writer, Published January 02 2010

North Dakota change lets more sulfate in Sheyenne River

BISMARCK – Part of the Sheyenne River that has been used to drain floodwaters from Devils Lake would have too much sulfate to be used for municipal drinking water under rules the state Health Department is proposing.

The proposal is included in a review of North Dakota water regulations that is done every three years. It would make permanent an emergency rule the Health Department instituted last summer to allow a channel that diverts water from Devils Lake to flow continuously for most of the year. The outlet was shut down for the winter in October.

The proposed rule would allow sulfate levels in part of the Sheyenne River as high as 750 milligrams per liter of water. Until July, the limit was 450 milligrams per liter. Advisory guidelines by the federal Environmental Protection Agency say drinking water should have no more than 250 milligrams per liter.

Sulfates occur naturally in water, but high levels can affect the taste and odor of drinking water. The 750-milligram limit would apply from the Sheyenne River’s headwaters in central North Dakota to just below the Baldhill Dam, which is about 12 miles northwest of Valley City in eastern North Dakota.

The Health Department’s initial decision to allow sulfate levels as high as 750 milligrams per liter in part of the Sheyenne has drawn protests from the government of Manitoba and people who live along the Sheyenne’s route in southeastern North Dakota. More than 700 people signed a petition in Valley City objecting to the change and demanding an independent environmental review.

David Glatt, environmental health chief for the Department of Health, said no community along the affected stretch of the Sheyenne River currently uses it for drinking water.

“You can go to (750 milligrams per liter), but only if it’s not designated as a municipal water supply,” Glatt said. “That stretch, there is no municipality pulling water out of the Sheyenne.”

Glatt said the higher sulfate levels should be safe for fish, livestock and riverbank vegetation. In any case, the upper Sheyenne River has naturally high sulfate levels that go above 450 milligrams per liter in spots, he said.

“There is a concern that (higher sulfate levels) may impart a taste and odor on the water, and so it’s an aesthetic problem,” Glatt said. “It is not a health problem.”

Dwight Williamson, an assistant deputy minister in Manitoba’s Water Stewardship agency, said the agency would be providing written comments on the proposed change. The Health Department is holding a Feb. 17 hearing in Bismarck on the proposed rules and is accepting comments until March 1.

“Although we have not yet begun a thorough review of the proposed changes ... our main concern likely will be related to the state’s intention to change the standard for sulphate in the Sheyenne River,” Williamson said in an e-mail Thursday to The Associated Press.

Manitoba officials also have expressed concerns that the Devils Lake water transfer will introduce unfamiliar organisms into provincial waters, including Lake Winnipeg.

Glatt said the changes were being proposed to allow the Devils Lake outlet channel to move greater amounts of water into the Sheyenne.

The outlet diverts water from Devils Lake’s west end into the river. Last summer, it could move only 100 cubic feet of water per second, and its use was limited by state sulfate standards until the ceiling was raised to 750 milligrams per liter.

North Dakota’s Water Commission is planning $15 million worth of improvements, including larger pumps and water filtering equipment, to upgrade the outlet’s pumping capacity to 250 cubic feet per second.

The outlet is intended to help stem the rise of Devils Lake, which has tripled in size since the early 1990s. The swollen lake has forced state and local officials to raise roads and improve a huge levee that protects the city of Devils Lake.

“This will, obviously, allow a little more water to be pumped out of Devils Lake,” Glatt said. “But it will be done in a way that’s protective of the environment.”


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