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History of Water in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota--Vernell Roberts

As told by Vernell Roberts
Detroit Lakes, Minnesota

Story Narrative:

This story was collected as part of a collaborative effort to record the state of American lakes, rivers, and waterways as well an attempt to uncover what water means to Americans. Listen to other stories recorded for the Be Here: Main Street project, a collaboration with the MuseWeb Foundation to record stories from rural America. 

"Vernell Roberts, Detroit Lakes Public Utilities. I'm the General Manager for Public Utilities. A little bit about the water history in Detroit Lakes. Prior to the 1940s, actually probably 1945, Detroit Lakes actually used to get the water from the lake. About that time the Department of Health was starting to take more of an interest in the public safety of water supplies and making sure that water supplies were safe for public consumption, so they were giving the City some direction on what they needed to do for treatment of their existing water supply.

It looked like chemical addition and treatment for lake water was going to be pretty expensive, so they decided to go out and drill some test wells to try to find a good supply of water. They started in the vicinity of the lake, but they weren't having much luck. They actually went by where the old power plant was at, and knowing what we know today about soil contamination and a good place to find drinking water, it's probably a good thing we didn't go to the power plant site, because we don't know what would have been there or what we may have found.

So they researched more down by the lake. They started drilling some test wells, and when they got in the test wells they were down 40 or 50 feet and just didn't have any good luck finding water. They were really worried that they were not going to be able to find an adequate supply of water.

So they kept drilling. They took a risk, and they went through about 160 foot of real hard defining clay and they got into an aquifer. The aquifer at that time had so much water it was actually starting to push the pipe and grab the pipe and pull the pipe below the ground for the well that they were using, so they had to pump more water inside the pipe to get the pipe to float until they could get the pressure stabilized from the inside to the outside.

They found the water. It was really good water quality. When they put the well together there was so much pressure that it was actually shooting water 18 to 20 feet high in the air. It was an artesian well. They tested the water. Very, very good quality water, but it had a lot of iron in it.

So they started putting it into the system, and it wasn't very long before people started complaining about guess what? Iron stains in the water, iron marks in the sinks, orange clothing and things like that. So then the City decided to expand their treatment. They put in an iron removal facility, and that's been updated several times. But right now we've got an iron removal facility to take the iron out of the water. We got very good high-quality water. It's what's called old water. It has not been exposed to what we understand as any nuclear testing from the 1940s and 1950s. It's very good high-quality water, and we're fortunate to have a good supply of water in Detroit Lakes.

We're running three wells out of the same aquifer, but we can pump that down and not influence or have much of an impact on the aquifer at all. It's interesting going from lake water to high-quality well water, and that's what we have in Detroit Lakes today.

I have an except from the former, and one of the original city engineers for the City of Detroit Lakes, Winston Larson, and he put something together on the history of the water system in Detroit Lakes, and he talks about the cost of water. I'm just going to read what he printed in this little article he did for us.

"When the average citizen pays his or her water bill they may think the commodity is expensive. The answer is simple. In order to operate efficiently the system must be managed by trained personnel. Maintenance costs are high in the complicated system. Huge amounts of electrical power are required. Monies must be set aside for adolescence. Money must be available to pay the interest and principal on bonds issued to finance improvements. Clerical staff must be maintained to read meters, issue statements, make collections and other items too numerous to mention. Citizens of Detroit Lake should be proud of its water supply, artesian well water of good quality at an affordable price."

Asset ID #3911

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