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Bryan Horwath, Forum News Service, Published July 27 2013

Official concerned about security of major water system in southwest ND

DICKINSON, N.D. - Following the levying of a fine against a company for illegally tapping a Southwest Water Authority line earlier this year, at least one member of the body’s board of directors thinks it could happen again.

Louisiana-based Leam Drilling Systems LLC was fined $20,000 by Southwest Water at the discretion of authority President Mary Massad, after it was discovered this spring that a line had been tampered with at a site north of Dickinson.

Though concerns about parties having access to unauthorized and uncharged Southwest Water supplies were raised by board members during authority meetings following the incident, concerns also are lingering about whether more breaches could be occurring along the system.

Breaches could also compromise the integrity of the system that supplies the majority of southwest North Dakota with its drinking water supply, board member Darrel Oech said

“It is a concern,” Oech said when asked Friday about the issue of water lines being tapped without the authority’s consent. “Like I’ve said at previous board meetings, stealing water is not really the issue. The issue is compromising the project. When someone taps into a line without authorization, they have no idea what the pressures are in that line — they could backfeed contaminants into the line if they haven’t done the process of making sure their lines are clean. There’s a risk of compromising the project.”

Massad said Thursday that she didn’t know of any other breaches along the Southwest Water system — which supplies water to 12 counties in southwest North Dakota and one county in northwest South Dakota — but added that “anything is possible” when considering the threat of another breach.

“I think it’s highly unlikely,” Massad said. “It is a serious issue, but I think we’ve had due diligence by our citizens calling in to see if somebody has been illegally tapped. We also have our telemetry system, which monitors pressures and leaks and we monitor our system for water loss.”

Despite assurances that Southwest Water’s system of checks and balances for finding tapped lines is adequate, Massad said that, to her knowledge, the authority has never successfully detected such an occurrence.

The Leam compromise was detected because one of its contractors called Southwest Water’s office to inquire about water pressure, Massad said.

When contacted Friday, North Dakota Water Users Executive Vice President Mike Dwyer, who also serves as legal counsel for Southwest Water, said he believes “most people are honest” when asked if he thinks more lines could be tampered with along the Southwest Water system — either now or in the future.

“(Southwest Water) has a pretty good metering system,” Dwyer said. “They know if water is disappearing. They know that it’s not a widespread problem. Every rural water system knows how much water it puts into its system and they know how much water they sell. I work with rural water systems all across the state and I’m the executive director of the North Dakota water users. I can tell you that the systems don’t have a significant problem with illegal tapping.”

When asked how many instances of illegal tapping he knew of statewide, however, Dwyer said he did not know and could not answer that question.

“When you got 4,000 customers, yes, it could happen without you knowing,” Dwyer said of illegal tapping. “Why do you think most people don’t steal?”

Massad pointed out that the Leam breach was the first illegal tapping to be detected during the course of Southwest Water’s 22 years of existence. To date, there is no evidence that Southwest Water’s supply or stockpile has at all been contaminated.

In its annual drinking water quality report, released Friday, Southwest Water documented that it recorded no actionable levels of detected contaminants, though small traces of a number of contaminants were found.

“Besides stealing water, the danger with (illegally tapped lines) is, if backflow were to fail, you would have the possibility of contaminating our system,” Massad said. “That’s the biggest concern and that’s why my board is concerned. But the (illegal tapping) situation is done with and we’re interested in moving forward. I think we have the proper precautions in place.”