Tackling the Challenges of a Region: Rural Water Works to Serve Those Who Need Water - EH: Minnesota Department of Health

Tackling the Challenges of a Region

Rural Water Works to Serve Those Who Need Water

From the Winter 2002-03 Waterline, the quarterly newsletter of the Minnesota Department of Health Public Water Supply Unit, Waterline, Minnesota Department of Health

“We do little promoting of our services," says Dominic Jones, manager of Red Rock Rural Water System in southwestern Minnesota. “Most of our business comes from word of mouth."

Acquiring new customers has never been a problem for Red Rock; however, finding additional sources of water to meet constantly growing demands is an ongoing challenge. Unlike a municipal water utility, the supply area for a rural water system is not neatly confined by city limits. Red Rock attempts to get water to where it is needed—farms, lake homes, even cities—in a service area that now encompasses approximately 3,200 square miles.

John Baerg, one of the founders and still a member of Red Rock's Board of Commissioners, notes that Red Rock-with its wellfield and treatment plant outside Windom is "on the fringes of where there is water," which differentiates it from the other two rural water systems in southwestern Minnesota: Lincoln-Pipestone in Lake Benton and Rock County in Luverne. In addition to its three wells, Red Rock has been purchasing water from other systems, such as Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water and the cities of Balaton and Windom. It is now in the process of hooking up to the city of St. James's water supply. This was made possible by an expansion to the St. James plant, which was partially paid for by Red Rock Rural Water System.

Baerg recalls the roots of the Red Rock system. A farmer on the outskirts of Butterfield, Baerg had a private well that produced water so hard that, "We couldn't keep faucets in the house. The hard water ate up the chrome, and we had to keep changing them. The softener didn't work very well. It would plug up all the time."

Other farmers in the area had the same problem with the water, if they had water at all. Jim Evers spent more than $50,000 on well drilling but came up dry in a search for water on his property. "For the rest of us, it was a quality issue," said Baerg. "For Jim, he just didn't have water. He had livestock and was having to haul water in."

In the late 1970s, a brother of Evers to the west hooked up to a rural water system and was pleased with the results, prompting Evers—desperate for any kind of water—to call the Minnesota Rural Water Association and inquire about starting a rural water system in Cottonwood, Murray, and Watonwan counties. Along with an attorney and engineering firm, a group of farmers began meeting in Evers's garage.

Like the others, Baerg had no involvement in water supply to this point; he was merely a farmer in search of good water. He was also skeptical about whether what they were considering could really be done. "We had been told that we couldn't do this-run miles of water pipe between farms. The engineer assured us it would work, but I didn't believe it until we did it."

Even with these doubts, Baerg and others set out to recruit 300 customers, the number required by Farmers Home Administration (now U. S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development) to finance the project. "We signed up those first 300 people without any idea where the water would come from," he said. "We didn't have a water supply. We didn't even know where the wells would be because the wells would be determined by where there was water and where the users were."

A substantial financial commitment was required to sign up for rural water. Baerg notes that the exact cost of $7,178 was "a number we just picked out at the time since we had no idea where we were at.

"We got our 300 sign ups. They promised to pay us more than $7,000-signing a document saying we could assess their property for that amount-and we were selling nothing." Nothing but a promise, that is.

However, it turned out to be several years before Baerg and the others could deliver on their promise. Litigation with a well driller delayed the process. Finally, in 1984, the project was bid and construction began. Many of the customers were roughly in a line between the towns of Delft, Dovray, and Garvin. In between was the city of Jeffers, which became the headquarters for Red Rock Rural Water System. A treatment plant and 100,000-gallon tower went up a few miles to the south, outside of Windom. Nearby, on the banks of the Des Moines River, two wells were drilled.

The system went on-line in late 1985. "I got my water between Christmas and New Year's," said Baerg. "What a change." The hardness of the water coming into his home went from 105 grains per gallon (the levels out of their well) to 25 grains per gallon. The salt consumption for his water softener dropped by nearly two-thirds. Other customers also had positive results with the switch to rural water.

The list of rural customers rose to close to 400, and in 1990 Red Rock also began supplying water to the city of Wilder. With the growth came additions to the treatment plant, which has a pair of gravity filters on the outside of the building to reduce levels of iron and manganese. The demand, from both rural customers and other cities, continued, requiring an expansion of the system in 1993, the year that Jones became its manager.

"This was the Murray County expansion," Jones explained, "which included a lot of homes around Lake Shetek." Red Rock added a third well at this time and also began purchasing water from the city of Balaton, in the northwest corner of the system. In addition, it entered into a water-purchase agreement with Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water
System. Lincoln-Pipestone is on the other side of a continental divide, in the Missouri River Drainage Basin. Pumping water from there to the Mississippi River watershed poses some administrative problems. "It's the only source we take water from on the wrong side of the divide," Jones said. "Under the water-purchase agreement with Lincoln-Pipestone, which was approved by the Department of Natural Resources, we're only taking 50 gallons per minute, a small amount that we use to blend the water. Balaton's water is relatively hard. Lincoln Pipestone's is relatively soft. It's a 50-50 blend and comes out with a hardness of 30 grains instead of 44, which was what we got from Balaton."

Requests for service continued and resulted in more upgrades for both Red Rock Rural Water System and the city of Windom, which was already planning upgrades to its treatment plant and an expansion of its well field. With Red Rock needing additional capacity, the two systems worked out a water-purchase agreement. In 1996, the Minnesota legislature approved a grant to Red Rock to add a 500,000-gallon water tower along with a transmission line to connect with Windom's water supply. Around that time, Rural Development came through with a loan that allowed for another 240 miles of mainline service to provide water to Odin and Ormsby. These cities were added to the system in 1997 with Dundee
coming on board the following year.

The end of the century did not bring any reduction in the cities and rural residents wanting to sign up with Red Rock. Faced with high radium levels, the city of Butterfield needed an alternative supply of water, and an emergency connection was made in 2001. Meanwhile, plans were underway for a multi-phase expansion project that includes Red Rock purchasing water from the city of St. James. Toward this end, Red Rock is helping to finance an upgrade to the St. James treatment plant that includes the addition of a backwater reclaim filter and a 500 gallon-per-minute (gpm) gravity filter as well as the rehabilitation of two existing 750-gpm filters. Mark Sturm, the chief water plant operator for St. James, says the timing of the project was very good for them. "We had been looking at expanding for years and rehabbing our old filters."

The first phase, which began last May and will be substantially complete by the end of 2002, will bring service to an additional 213 customers. Through the summer of 2002, crews from Eatherly Constructors, Inc. of Garden City, Kansas, installed a six-inch mainline from the St. James plant to the treatment facility in Butterfield, a distance of
approximately eight miles.

Directional drilling was used to get the pipe under streams, roads, and driveways with most of the installation being done with open cuts. As much as possible, the pipe was installed along the edges of fields adjacent to the roadway rather than in the ditch. "We like to go in the field with the pipe," says Baerg, "because in the ditch the equipment is crooked, and we have to put the pipe in the ground with five feet of cover because of the freezing." Although it requires easements from landowners to use the fields, Baerg says its worth it since the trenchers, backhoes, and excavators operate better on level ground.

Service lines bring water to individual customers. All the new users paid the same amount, regardless of how far off the mainline they are. One of the farthest is Wayne Hanson, who lives a mile south of the mainline. Concerns over water quality caused Hanson to sign up for the service. He had a 36-foot-deep well with very hard water-more than 100 grains per gallon. Hanson no longer has livestock on his farm but still raises corn and soybeans.

Baerg says some of the customers with livestock are seeing the biggest difference in switching to rural water. "Many have found that the better quality water produces healthier livestock. For most customers, the hookup to rural water pays for itself. I have yet to meet a customer who is unhappy with the water. I can't explain the explosion that there is [with the demand for rural water]."

The explosion is not just from rural customers or even cities, says Jones. "We have a number of wet industries abounding in southwest Minnesota," he explained. "Ethanol and soybean plants, the beef and pork industries are consuming water at a high rate. They do their design based on the location of the corn, beef, poultry-whatever their industry is-and they put their plant next to a rail line or highway. They look for gas or electric lines, but they forget that they need water.

"Our biggest issue is deciding what our priorities are-economic growth or giving people in southwest Minnesota potable water on a wide regional basis."

With 1,000 miles of mainline, Red Rock now provides service to more than 1,100 rural customers and eight cities. More than 200 additional rural customers will be added in 2003 as part of the second phase of the current expansion. "People are begging us to come to them, so we're looking at a third phase," says Baerg.

As always, it comes down to finding additional sources of water. Red Rock is now involved in a joint water-research project with Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water and the city of Worthington. However, the results of test drilling have not yet identified any new sources. "They've been battling that issue [finding good water] since I've been here," says Jones, "and they've been battling it before I was here."

The battles will continue, no doubt, as Red Rock and other rural water systems continue their mission to ensure people get good quality water where it is needed.

On by Pressure, Off by Flow

Decades after the Rural Electrification Administration brought electricity to farmers, the same concept began with an even more important resource-water.

Jerry Janzen, now an engineering manager for U. S. Filter of Vadnais Heights, Minnesota, recalls the role that rural water systems played in getting water where it was needed. "We're now seeing water for the farm industry being a lot more extensive than it was 20 years ago, when farmers just pretty much lived with the rainfall they had," he says.

More than 20 years ago, Janzen was with Dynamic Systems, Inc., which had been involved in the development of rural water systems in the Dakotas in the 1970s. The company concluded that the traditional method of building rural water systems-which essentially mimicked a municipal water supply by attempting to control pressure throughout the system by the placement of elevated tanks in strategic locations-didn't make sense in sparsely populated areas.

"Within a city, particularly with loops being used, there is seldom more than a mile from a tower to the user," explains Dynamic Systems, Inc. founder Bob Minnihan. "A large city will build in loops with large lines so that friction loss variations are a very small part of delivery pressure to the user. While this approach was used in early rural water systems, it quickly became cost prohibitive in systems less dense in users and with longer transmission lines. Consultants at that time attempted to solve the cost problem by designing distribution systems using smaller pipe, which could be plowed in directly rather than trenched. However, in many of the systems of this type, frictional losses of up to 50 psi [pounds per square inch] were normal. The first generation of controls were inefficient and unreliable."

Minnihan, working with the consultants designing the water systems, concluded that frictional losses at high flows were of greatest concern and that, as flows approached design capacity, distribution frictional loss would statistically approach design losses. "This realization allowed each user's supply pressure to be predicted operationally based on the source pumping station's discharge pressure and flow," Minnihan said. "From this knowledge, it was possible to determine what station discharge pressure was necessary in order to provide a minimum acceptable pressure to each user after system elevation and frictional losses.

"The algorithm that resulted, simplified, is that flow determines the minimum acceptable pressure at pump station discharge. A drop below this pressure required the next higher pumping stage while a drop in flow below the stage's flow set point would allow a drop in pumping stage. Each pump stage had its own set of minimum acceptable discharge pressures and flows.

"For many, this was further simplified to, 'On by pressure, off by flow.' This proved to be a great improvement over earlier pressure/pressure-control systems. A small, low-head pump could be used for the lower pump stage, with each succeeding stage using a larger, higher-head pump. Adequate pressures were provided to all users at all flow conditions."

"That's the trick," says Janzen, "stopping the pumps based on flow rather than pressure." By doing this and regulating discharge pressure with pressure-reducing valves, Janzen says a system could maintain pressure at the farthest ends of its system.

DeWild Grant Reckert and Associates Company of Rock Rapids, Iowa, the engineer on the current Red Rock Rural Water System expansion, at that time used a computer model to calculate the theoretical pressure at the ends of a system.

"The model was to control the pumps in a booster station based on demand," says Gordon Krause, the head of the Water Resources Department for DeWild Grant Reckert. "We refer to that as our pressure-flow system, where you'd be pumping directly into a distribution system as opposed to an elevated tank where, on that system, you'd just stop the pumps when the tank was full and start it when it needed water.

"It has allowed us to design systems without having elevated storage. During the early development of rural water systems, there wasn't enough money to build the systems with the elevated tank and the gravity systems that we're using now, so this was a lower-cost alternative that allowed us to build some systems that probably would not have been built if we didn't have that."

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Updated Tuesday, March 22, 2016 at 02:54PM