What’s in the Water: Gov. Suspends Water Quality Standards in the Sheyenne River

Governor Jack Dalrymple signed an executive order on Monday that suspends the limit of sulfates in the Sheyenne River as the new outlets on East Devils Lake pump high-sulfate water into the river which is the primary source of drinking water for Valley City.

The existing West-end and the new East-end outlets, which began pumping up to 650 cubic feet per second in June, were created “expeditiously” according to the Governor’s order, and their construction has been vehemently protested by local groups in Valley City for years. Aside from erosion and flood protection, the high levels of sulfates in the water are another major concern of local river groups. The sulfates can cause a variety of health problems when ingested by humans, most commonly being severe diarrhea.

The maximum allowable amount of sulfates allowed in the Sheyenne River were raised by the state last year to 450 milligrams per liter below Lake Ashtabula and 750 above to allow for Devils Lake water. The State Water Commission also paid $15.4 million for the new $20.8 million water treatment plant to handle the increased sulfates in the river from which Valley City takes its drinking water from.

Executive orders from the Governor’s office are usually accompanied by an official press release but the order suspending the water quality standards in the river was not.

The Governor’s media spokesman, Jeff Zent, said there is no set procedure as to how such releases are handled.

“There’s a lot of executive orders that have never risen to the occasion of sending out a news release,” Zent said. “It’s not an exact science.”
When asked about the communities the order could potentially impact, Zen said population is only one of the factors.

“Every situation is different... there’s a lot of things we take into account,” he said.

Dennis Fewless, from the Water Quality Division of the State Health Department said people drinking Valley City’s water have nothing to worry about with the city’s new water treatment plant.

“We have worked with the city of Valley City and our primary concern was that people have safe drinking water out of the Sheyenne downstream of the East- and West-end outlets,” Fewless said.

“The city has its upgraded plant with ultra-filtation, they have water for drinking in Valley City better than they’ve ever had so we do not see any impact for the city of Valley City’s drinking water.”

Valley City City Administrator David Schelkoph echoed Fewless’s statements about the city’s new state-of-the-art water treatment plant, but questioned how much the cost of operating the plant could fluctuate when having to clean water with higher sulfate levels.

“For us, it’s new territory, understanding what those costs are,” Shelkoph said Monday following a meeting of the Valley City Flood Task Force. “The northern part of the Sheyenne is now experiencing 750 (mg/l) and the Governor has just declared an emergency allowing that to be lifted, so the limits of 450 on the south end of the river is no longer applicable and eventually – it isn’t there now – eventually the sulfates are overcome Lake Ashtabula, and those sulfate numbers, we’re going to start seeing to the south here.”