Started by a Mistake, Educational Programs
Still Pay Off in Detroit Lakes

From the Fall 2002 Waterline, the quarterly newsletter of the Minnesota Department of Health Public Water Supply Unit, © Waterline, Minnesota Department of Health

Detroit Lakes Well HousesWhat spurs growth? What drives progress?

Innovation is often the result of filling a need. It sometimes comes in the form of dealing with a crisis and, in the process, developing a new method or technique. In some occasions, it can even be a result of a person with a vision that is driven by the result of a mistaken notion. Such is the case with the city of Detroit Lakes and the educational focus it has adopted as part of its method of keeping drinking water safe.

A new water filtration plant went on-line in Detroit Lakes in 1985, around the same time the operations of the city’s water and wastewater plants were combined. A few years later, the University of Minnesota performed carbon dating on Detroit Lakes’ groundwater supply and found evidence of tritium, a radioactive isotope. The presence of tritium, associated with the testing of hydrogen bombs after World War II, is an indicator of a small admixture of recent water that entered the ground since 1954.

Jarrod Christen, the water/wastewater supervisor for Detroit Lakes, remembers the scare this threw into the water department. “We thought our aquifer was completely isolated,” he said. The city has three wells, ranging in depth from 232 to 237, in People’s Park, which is across the street from the treatment plant. The wells penetrate a 150-foot layer of clay to the aquifer, which, according to Christen, is so confined that People’s Park is just about the only place where they can reach it with wells. Yet the university report, with its finding of tritium, indicated that the aquifer was vulnerable.

As a result, Detroit Lakes was high on the priority list for the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) wellhead protection program in the 1990s. The city began working with Dave Neiman of Minnesota Rural Water Association as well as Bruce Olsen and Justin Blum of MDH in developing their program. “The inner wellhead delineation showed the 10- and 20-year travel times for water were so large that we didn’t know where to start looking for where the newer water was infiltrating the aquifer,” Chisten said, adding that their number-one suspect was Little Detroit Lake, which is near People’s Park. “That’s where we thought the link would be.”

At Neiman’s suggestion, Christen also got involved with Groundwater Guardian, a program of the Groundwater Foundation of Lincoln, Nebraska, that encourages communities to begin and enhance groundwater awareness and protection activities. Recognizing that education was as significant as their sand filters in providing safe water, Christen began working with students and teachers at Rossman Elementary School, which is across the street from the water plant and just to the south of the wellfield in People’s Park.

Meanwhile, MDH continued to investigate the source of tritium-laced water, with particular scrutiny being paid to Little Detroit Lake. Testing, however, revealed no influence from surface water sources on the city’s groundwater supply. In the end, it was determined that the original report indicating the presence of tritium was in error and that the confined aquifer was not vulnerable, as had been thought.

The Groundwater Guardian program—though started on incorrect information—had by this time taken on a life of its own. The city sent two teachers to a Groundwater Guardian conference in California. “They came back charged up,” Christen recalls, “and they inspired their students to put on a water festival in Detroit Lakes.” Soon, students at Rossman Elementary School were becoming the teachers as they presented their knowledge on water and the need to protect the environment to others.

Jarrod Christen by the fledgling arboretumThe groundwater festival in 2001 drew students as well as teachers from the Detroit Lakes School District and neighboring communities. The Rossman students also made a multi-media presentation to teachers that June at the Drinking Water Institute, a three-day seminar in which teachers learn about water and develop curriculum on the topic to bring back to their classrooms. For their work, Rossman Elementary School was named a Groundwater Guardian Community by the Groundwater Foundation. Normally, this designation goes to municipalities. Rossman School was the first public school in the nation to be recognized in this manner. The students, accompanied by Christen and by mentors and teachers, traveled to Pittsburgh last November to receive a plaque for their educational efforts.

Christen is spreading the program to other schools and now has Holy Rosary Christian School involved. Holy Rosary has begun holding its own water festival and hopes to match Rossman by becoming a Groundwater Guardian Community. Not to be outdone, Rossman School has plans, started with the planting of a tree last April, for an arboretum on its grounds.

The increased awareness makes his job easier, Christen says. “These water festivals and other activities help to get the word out about our wellhead protection plan and conservation.”

Jarrod Christen (in photo above) stands by a newly planted tree, the start of an arboretum on the grounds of Rossman Elementary School, the first public school in the country to be designated a Groundwater Guardian Community by the Groundwater Foundation of Lincoln, Nebraska. The flag signifies the school’s status as a protector of water. Christen sees education as a critical component of providing safe water to the city’s residents.

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Updated Thursday, 22-May-2014 06:42:32 CDT