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Drinking water violations spike as new systems come online

BISMARCK — The number of major drinking water violations committed by North Dakota’s public water systems jumped 37 percent last year and has more than doubled in the past decade as dozens of new systems have come online to serve the state’s growing population and thriving economy.

LeeAnn Tillotson, environmental scientist for the North Dakota Department of Health’s Drinking Water Program, said most of the violations were monitoring and reporting violations, not contamination violations.

“I think we have a lot of new systems operating now, and it takes them a while sometimes to kind of get with the routine,” she said.

Major violations increased from 236 in 2012 to 325 last year, according to the Health Department’s annual Drinking Water Compliance Report released Monday.

The 325 major violations represent a 146 percent increase over the 132 major violations reported in 2003. During that same time period, the number of public water systems serving North Dakotans increased by 23 percent, from 531 to 654.

A public water system is defined as a system that provides drinking water via piping or other means to at least 15 service connections or 25 or more people for at least 60 days each year.

The new systems coming online include mobile home parks, housing camps for oilfield workers, RV parks and food service establishments, Tillotson said.

A lot of the new systems – many, but not all, of which have popped up in oil-rich western North Dakota – have high turnover rates among operators and administrators, she said.

In cases where violations are found, the Health Department provides additional technical assistance and tries to stay in consistent contact with someone from the system to make sure they know their responsibilities, she said.

“We spend a little extra time with those people until we get them to come back into compliance,” she said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates how often systems must monitor their water for contaminants and report the results to the state. North Dakota is one of 49 states that administer their own supervision program under regulations that must be at least as stringent as federal regulations; only Wyoming doesn’t.

States must report “significant monitoring violations,” which are major violations that occur when no samples are taken or no results are reported during a compliance period. Eighty-seven percent of North Dakota’s major violations fell into that category last year.

Among the major violations related to contaminant levels, coliform bacteria was most prevalent last year, resulting in 39 violations. Tillotson said coliform is very common and is used as an indicator for more serious bacteria such as E. Coli or fecal coliform, but it can become a public health risk if left unaddressed.

“Because it’s so important, we address those immediately,” she said, noting one remedy is to chlorinate the distribution system.

In addition to the major violations, the state also had 22 minor drinking water violations and 47 consumer notice violations in 2013. People served by systems that violated the Safe Drinking Water Act last year should have been informed their water suppliers, Drinking Water Program Administrator Greg Wavra said in a news release.

Wavra said it’s important to note that the majority of violations in the 2013 report, which included violations recorded in 2014 based on 2013 monitoring data, have been resolved.

“It is a significant challenge for public water systems and states to meet the ever-increasing number of requirements under the (Safe Drinking Water Act),” he said.

The report concluded that the vast majority of public water systems in North Dakota maintain an “excellent” record of complying with the act. Last year, the state issued 291 certificates of compliance to operators and public water systems that maintained full compliance.

Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.