ON THE CLOCK: Assuring the safety of city water

Residents of Dickinson and southwest North Dakota expect to see clean, clear water when they turn on the faucet. It's never given a second thought, even when a storm is raging outside.

Water treatment plant operator Dave Lupo looks over the contact basin, where the water coming in is being mixed with lime and some chemicals for softening and to settle out the solids. (Linda Sailer / The Dickinson Press)
Water treatment plant operator Dave Lupo looks over the contact basin, where the water coming in is being mixed with lime and some chemicals for softening and to settle out the solids. (Linda Sailer / The Dickinson Press)

Residents of Dickinson and southwest North Dakota expect to see clean, clear water when they turn on the faucet. It's never given a second thought, even when a storm is raging outside.

A plentiful supply of filtered and chlorinated water is the responsibility of six full time and two-part time water treatment operators at Dickinson.

"Our main job is to make sure we have an adequate supply of safe water," water treatment plant operator Dave Lupo said. "It also has to be aesthetically pleasing, it has to be clear, it can't have an odor, it can't have a taste --so that's what we do here."

As employees of the Southwest Water Authority, they work at the water treatment plant on Broadway Street.

Approximately 6 million gallons of water are treated on an average day at Dickinson-more in the summer. The treatment process requires two shifts of workers, who usually start at 7 a.m. and finish around 9 p.m.


"We work 40 hour weeks, but we go seven days a week-weekends and holidays," Lupo said. "If there's a blizzard, somebody gets here one way or another. He might be here two days and we have meals ready-to-eat if somebody is stuck here."

Start of his career

Lupo started working as an employee and later part-owner of The Fad, a men's clothing store in Dickinson. When the store closed around 1998, he completed his degree in biology from Dickinson State University and started working at SolarBee in Dickinson. He has been with the water treatment plant for 10 years.


The career change was dramatic.

"Coming from retail, I saw different faces all day, every day, and now I see the six same faces," he said.

Lupo takes pride in his work.

"It's a challenge if you stop and think about it," he said. "In the course of a day, you use chemistry, you use biology, physics and algebra. You do entries on the computer, and the main thing is you monitor for water quality and make sure the chemicals are being fed at the right levels. In the meantime, we run back washes on the seven filters every 200 hours."


The plant operators run water tests every hour, and do a complete chemistry workup every day.

"Not only are we watching to make sure the chemistry of the water is right, we're also watching all the systems," Lupo said. "They all involve pumps and motors and gearboxes-there's a lot of things to learn."

Even when the plant stops processing water for the evening, the monitors keep running to determine how much water is being used by the cities, farmers and ranchers.

"When everything is running pretty well, we still make rounds two or three times an hour to make sure nothing goofy is going on," he said. "You have chemical barrels that must be kept full. We do all the preventive maintenance and probably 98 percent of the repairs."

The plant was completed in 1969, so much of the equipment is more than 40 years old.

"The reason it's still running is preventive maintenance," he said.

The new water treatment plant goes online in 2017. The plant will use a microfiltration process-essentially running water through filters.

The existing plant relies on a traditional treatment process , essentially running the water through sand and anthracite coal.


"The first phase of the new plant, we can process only 6 million gallons a day, so this plant here will be the backup especially during the summer," Lupo said.

Involving the younger generation

The raw water from Lake Sakakawea is very good, he said.

"It makes our job a lot easier-it's good quality water, he said. "It needs to be softened, and we add some chlorine at Dodge to keep the ground reservoirs and pipeline clean,"

As for any fish and frogs, they are screened out at the intake.

"Sometimes we get little snails at Dodge, but no fish or frogs," he said with a smile. "I wouldn't worry about drinking a swallow of raw water."

Fluoride also is added to the water, mainly as a requirement of the North Dakota Department of Health.

"We don't have to use much --there's a lot of natural fluoride in the lake water," he said.

Lupo would like to see more young people consider a career in water treatment.

"People always need water-if there's an oil boom an oil bust or recession, people need water," he said. "So job security is excellent. You use all the sciences, and will turn a wrench. I'm surprised more young people aren't actively pursuing this as a career. It's been difficult finding operators. We're willing to train them. You can't have more job security than water."

Overview of the process

The Southwest Water Authority's water treatment manager is Grace Rixen-Handford. She graduated with a degree in water quality environmental health from Montana State University - Northern. She has worked at wastewater treatment plants at Hamilton, Mont., and Cheyenne, Wyo., and was operations supervisor for a water treatment plant at Lafayette, La. before moving to Dickinson in 2012.

"Basically, we're taking surface water and treating it for drinking water," she said. "The water comes from Lake Sakakawea and is piped more than 100 miles from the intake at Renner Bay." The water is pumped to the Oliver-Mercer-Dunn County raw water reservoir north of Zap. From there it flows by gravity to the Dodge pumping station, then to the Richardton pumping station and then to the raw water reservoirs near Dickinson. The water continues by gravity to the treatment plant in the city.

"During the summer, we can treat about 8 to 9 million gallons a day," she said. "In the winter months, it is approximately 6 million gallons a day."

The raw water starts in a treatment basin where lime and coagulant chemicals are added to soften the water, and suspended solids are removed.

The turbidity, or the cloudiness, of the water is low, Rixen-Handford said.

"It's my theory the water is from such a big lake that it has a lot of settling time. When we have several days of high winds, the turbidity will shoot up," she said

After the water is softened, carbon dioxide is added to bring the pH back down. The water is then filtered through sand, gravel and anthracite coal. Finally, the water is injected with chlorine and phosphate to prevent corrosion during distribution.

The existing water treatment plant is challenged to process enough water in the summer for southwest North Dakota's demands.

"If it's hot and dry, we have to reschedule operator shifts," Rixen-Handford said. "It's a matter of keeping an eye on production to see if the trend is going up or down."

Southwest Water Authority also has a second treatment plant to provide water for Oliver-Mercer and north Dunn counties, she said.

The Water Authority has multiple construction projects planned for southwest North Dakota.

Construction is underway on a new intake at Renner Bay, and two more raw water reservoirs-one at Richardton and the other at Dickinson.

The new water treatment plant at Dickinson should be online by fall of 2017. Phase one will involve 6 million, followed by Phase 2 and Phase 3, she said.

"People take water for granted," Rixen-Handford said. "My question is always-would you rather have electricity or water? I'd say any day of the week it would be water."

She credited the water operators for their reliability and dedication.

"When they're called to come in, no question is asked-- they do it, they know their job is important-that people need water," she said.

Related Topics: DICKINSON
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