Depending on the location, the water that cattle drink in western North Dakota is “as good as the tap water in Fargo,” North Dakota State University Extension specialists said.

“Some of it was absolutely amazing,” said Carl Dahlen, an NDSU extension beef cattle specialist. “You couldn’t buy water that pure in a store. That’s interesting to see the variation out there.”

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The State Board of Agricultural Research and Education gave the NDSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory a $5,790 grant to conduct a water quality study in western counties. Thanks to the basic analysis performed by staff at the facility, several livestock producers have a better idea of how good the water their livestock drink is, lab research specialist Michelle Mostrom said.

The pilot study, performed May to August, took an average of 28 samples from wells, ponds, rivers and creeks in Bowman, Dunn, Golden Valley, McKenzie, Mountrail and Oliver counties. NDSU researchers worked with extension agents, including Bowman County agent Andrea Bowman.

“We had talked about gathering some baseline water quality levels for our area,” Bowman said. “I knew that was a need for our producers here.”

The project stemmed from concerns in water quality after a drought in 2012, Mostrom said. Her lab saw an increase in samples sent to the lab. Bowman, McKenzie and Golden Valley counties were categorized as natural disaster areas in October 2012 due to a drought.

“The water in western North Dakota can, in places, be fairly high in dissolved solids and sulfates,” Mostrom said, adding there was potential problems for livestock loss and poor production.

Water levels were low in Bowman County during the drought; some bodies of water even dried up, Bowman said.

“If you already have a high concentration and you don’t have water diluting that down, it just creates more of a problem,” Bowman said.

Some producers raised questions about oil industry impacts on their water quality. The team did not have enough money to test for oil contaminants -- it costs around $1,500 per sample, Mostrom said.

“You know that there is a lot of concern about different oilfield activity out there (near Dickinson),” Dahlen said. “We do hear some of those concerns. When we have new industry growing, there is always concern about that industry.”

But the study focused on natural impacts, such as salts, sulfates and even blue-green algae, which can affect water after a drought, Mostrom said. Researchers did not get requests for blue-algae, which can be fatal to livestock if ingested.

“It was more an issue of natural environment and drought than it was anything to do with contamination from oilfield activity,” Dahlen said.

Water quality ranged from very good to so toxic that Mostrom warned producers to stop letting their livestock drink it.

“Some of the ponds, some of the well water in different areas in different counties was very poor,” Mostrom said. “I think the drought surprised some of the producers as to how poor water quality could be. Some producers knew that they probably had a limited ability to use water in pastures because of the poor water quality.”

She added: “One sample came in and it had the highest pH level I’d ever seen. It was almost to the top of the pH scale.”

The water from that sample was contaminated by a well site, Mostrom said, but the producer was aware of it and was working with several agencies.

Classifications in quality were sporadic across the area, Mostrom added. It’s hard to compare samples to each other since they were taken at different periods throughout the summer. The point of the study was not to compare but rather get “a snapshot in time” to help producers see how good, or poor, their water is.

“If we don’t have a baseline of where we are today, how do we know if anything served as a contamination?” he asked.

There are currently no plans to run another study this year, Dahlen said. The drought has receded, being replaced with a wet season last year. Precipitation is about normal for this year to date, according to the National Weather Service in Bismarck.

But that can all change, Dahlen said, despite carryover from last year and more than a foot of snow falling in recent weeks.

“The water faucet in the sky can turn off at any moment,” Dahlen said. “Spring water and recharge is a good indication of what water quality may look like in the summer. We just continually need to monitor what kind of changes are going on out there.”

Producers should document cattle activity and environmental changes, Mostrom said. Water can be tested at the NDSU lab or contact their local extension agents for more information.