From quantity to quality, Ninth District states grapple with growing concerns over water

David Fettig | Editor

Published April 1, 1992  | April 1992 issue

The skylines of America's small towns often offer clues about their history and development. The dominant church spires of many New England towns, for example, reflect religion's importance to this country's early European settlers; and in the Great Plains and other Western regions, small towns are often marked by a looming, omnipresent water tower.

This isn't to suggest that Western America is spiritually connected to water the way New Englanders are spiritually connected to their churches, but the architectural symbolism is more than coincidence. "Water availability is a critical issue for our entire state," says North Dakota Lieutenant Governor Lloyd Omdahl, referring as much to the future as to the state's history. "It's one of the most urgent issues of the '90s."

The current fedgazette poll reveals that 82 percent of Ninth District respondents are concerned about the quality of their locally available water over the next decade. Also, 87 percent would be willing to pay additional fees or taxes to ensure the quality of their drinking water, and 23 percent currently use bottled water or purification equipment in their homes.

For many in the Ninth District, these concerns about the quality and quantity of their water are not just idle worries. In southwestern North Dakota, for example, seven communities are "under sanction" by the Environmental Protection Agency: If the communities do not improve the quality of their water within three years, they will be subject to fines. And in the small town of Kyle, S.D., the community health clinic must periodically close its doors due to lack of water. The town's lone water tower often has just half of normal water pressure, forcing the clinic, a relatively large water user in the community, to shut down about one day every other month.

Nationally, the availability and quality of water has become an increasingly important issue, with farms and cities in the West concerned about quantity, and residents of the east worried about preserving the quality and supply of their existing water reserves.

In the Ninth District, water issues are as diverse as the region's terrain. While 100 inches of precipitation falls every year in the Rocky Mountain range of Montana, most of Montana and the Dakotas only receive between 12 and 24 inches of precipitation annually and drought is always a concern. Further east, in the water-rich regions of Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, conflicts often arise over the proper use of water, whether for economic development, recreation/tourism or for environmental preservation.

Articles in this issue of the fedgazette discuss the importance of the Missouri River to Montana and the Dakotas, some of the problems/issues of the eastern region of the District, and provide water consumption data for the Ninth District.