Partnering on the Prairies

Nov. 20, 2008

About the author: Clint Jacobs is manager for Dry Prairie Rural Water Authority. Jacobs can be reached at 406.787.5382 or by e-mail at [email protected].

Americans are benefiting from drinking water standards that are increasing water quality and consequently, the quality of life. Improved water quality is the result of agency requirements and encouragement from citizens who insist on quality.

When the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was passed by Congress in 1974, nearly 25 contaminants were listed and regulated. Today that number is nearing 250. The problem of conforming to the increasing number of regulated contaminants is compounded by the lowering of maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for certain substances. A recent example is arsenic, which was lowered from 50 to 10 ppb in 2006. Two front-burner issues facing many water systems today are disinfection byproducts and groundwater under the influence of surface water.

American consumers are increasingly vigilant over the quality of drinking water, purchasing more than 8 billion gal of bottled water annually. Home water treatment systems continue to increase, including equipment such as faucet filters, reverse osmosis (RO), softening and distillation.

Small Systems, Large Responsibilities

Small water systems across the nation struggle to maintain compliance with quality required by the consumer and the SDWA. Small systems generally lack revenues, have limited technical ability and may lack the local leadership necessary to address the present and future responsibilities of a public water system. These factors combine in ways that can and do put the public at risk.

When Congress enacted the SDWA, its members were aware that small systems would have difficulty meeting quality standards. Congress anticipated that small systems would consolidate and could thereby maintain quality standards. Some consolidation has occurred, but there are tens of thousands more small systems (population 500 or less) in the U.S. today than there were in 1974.

Source Water

Many small communities are plagued by poor water sources. Underlying the Great Plains of northeast Montana is the Bearpaw Shale, which contains high levels of undesirable and unacceptable chemicals that were deposited when the area was an ancient sea. The resulting groundwater is poor and exceeds most secondary drinking water recommendations. Even so, this groundwater is the only source for nearly all community and rural residents. The most abundant source of groundwater within the region is the Flaxville gravels; however, 80% of wells drilled into the aquifer exceed the MCL for nitrates.

The region’s municipal systems cope with dissolved solids ranging from 750 to 2,730 mg/L and sulfates as high as 1,120 mg/L. This is generally higher than the suggested secondary contaminant limits for drinking water, being 500 and 400 mg/L, respectively. Consequently, the water is often unusable except for sanitary purposes.

Small-package water treatment plants have been installed in some communities. Nearly all such plants have proven to be less effective in providing quality water and far more expensive to operate and maintain than anticipated. Meanwhile, rural residents have relied on home RO systems or hauling water to residential cisterns.

The poor quality of source water and the high cost of transforming that water into adequate quantities of dependable, high-quality drinking water became the motivation for area residents to find a better source and a better solution.


Communities in the northern plains are in transition. With improved transportation and communications, small towns are no longer the separate or isolated entities they were just a couple generations ago. The transformation is evident in factors such as school consolidation and regionalized medical services. In effect, the geographical boundaries that once defined a community have undergone an expansion. The service areas of public drinking water systems previously ended at the city limits. But pipelines are now connecting multiple towns sharing the same water source, thus regionalizing small public drinking water systems.

The Fort Peck Tribes were the first to envision a regional water system in Montana. They began investigating the means and methods of such a project in the late 1980s. Working with the Bureau of Reclamation, a needs assessment was developed in 1993. In 1995, officials of the tribes began to explore an expansion of the project to include areas outside the reservation boundaries.

A Steering Committee was formed in 1997 to represent the off-reservation interests. Members began working with the state of Montana to develop a legislative proposal to finance state and local construction cost shares for the off-reservation portion of the project. The Steering Committee later became an eight-member board making up the governing body of the Dry Prairie Rural Water Authority. In October 2000, Congress and the president authorized the project in PL 106-382.

The Fort Peck/Dry Prairie regional water system’s service area is bordered by Canada to the north, North Dakota to the east and the Missouri River to the south. Construction began in 2003, and the system is now at various stages of completion in multiple locations. The project is being supplied by a single intake facility on the Missouri River and a water treatment plant nearby. A single water treatment plant will allow upgrades to be implemented eventually to meet future SDWA requirements for all the community and rural users. Nearly 3,200 miles of pipeline will deliver drinking water to more than 20 communities and nearly 4,000 farms, ranches and rural homes.

Patience & Perseverance

Regionalizing public drinking water is a difficult and time-consuming process, yet the incremental successes along the way are highly rewarding and the mission is noble and practical. Proponents of such systems must exhibit cooperation, patience and determination. The Fort Peck/Dry Prairie system is testimony that rural residents can work together to address long-standing drinking water problems that necessitate such a unique venture.

The Assiniboine and Sioux people who comprise the Fort Peck Tribes possess water rights on the Missouri River that will supply the system. The tribes offered to supply that water to their off-reservation neighbors so all could join in the regional system. Thus began a partnership that continues to improve the quality of life for all residents of northeast Montana.

Expansion Opportunities

As small systems contend with increased water quality issues, they should be assessing their own unique opportunities to join with other systems or expand their service areas. In doing so, their systems will benefit from the improved financial, managerial and technical capacities that are necessary to meet the present and future challenges faced by drinking water utilities.

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About the Author

Clint Jacobs

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