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Not long ago, I was using a faucet at a workplace in Bismarck. A man walked up and stood nearby, patiently waiting for a turn. He said, “You guys have the best water. I’m from Texas, and we don’t have water like this. I’m coming to drink some more.” He smiled. I told him I knew what he meant.

I did know what he meant, as I’ve lived in several states and metro areas. I, too, had come to really appreciate Bismarck-Mandan’s high-quality drinking water. But this visitor’s comment stuck with me, and it made me ask whether we take our water quality for granted. If so, what threats to our water quality exist? I sought answers.

Our area’s drinking water comes from the Missouri River. The Missouri has thousands of tributaries, most notably the Yellowstone River carrying Rocky Mountains snowmelt and more from Montana to the Missouri within North Dakota. Downstream, the river reaches Lake Sakakawea and continues southward to the Bismarck area. The water receives treatment and ultimately makes its way into our faucets and our bodies.

Lucky for us, our water isn’t just admired by visitors; it’s award-winning. At last year’s statewide Annual Water and Pollution Control Conference, Bismarck’s water was rated best in North Dakota. Mandan earned that same honor in 2016. This week, Lisbon was selected as having the state's best-tasting tap water in 2019.

Clearly, the water coming from our taps is a precious resource in need of protection. The Environmental Protection Agency plays a role in maintaining our water quality. However, our state has considerable power to determine its own fate. North Dakota has “primacy” regarding many water issues, as we have demonstrated to the EPA that our State Water Commission functions well and our standards are high. As locals whose lives depend on our water, we can appreciate all the State Water Commission does without becoming complacent. Following are some issues we may encounter as we continually rely on the water coming from our faucets.

Spills: For instance, in January 2015 the Bridger Pipeline crude oil spill and the Summit Midstream Blacktail Creek brine spill both put our water sources at risk. The Bridger pipeline released crude oil into the Yellowstone River about 100 miles from Williston. Meanwhile, a brine spill was discovered 20 miles or so east of Williston. This brine spill threatened the Little Muddy River, another tributary of the Missouri. Such risks can hit close to home.

Flooding: As climate change generates more erratic precipitation, flooding risks increase. Such flooding can bring in difficult-to-treat contaminants, ultimately risking the safety of drinking water.

Cybersecurity: Many water or wastewater treatment plants use supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. As North Dakota continues to embrace cybersecurity initiatives across various sectors, we should remain aware that these water systems could face cybersecurity risk.

Infrastructure/population: When the Bismarck Metro Area population increases, we will need infrastructure to provide enough water for area residents. This will require a tricky balance of being both proactive and reactive. We must be realistic about the future tax revenues needed to pay for such infrastructure. However, expanding too rapidly may result in costly maintenance of main water lines that few are using.

Privatization: North Dakota rural water systems are generally successful public-private partnerships. Of course, not all privatization is automatically threatening. However, we’re well-served to look at the global issues surrounding water privatization. While public-private partnerships may currently serve our state well, increasing privatization could conflict with North Dakotans’ control over their own water.

A global water crisis is coming in the next several decades. Decisions made today will determine how much that crisis impacts Bismarck-Mandan. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge the risks facing our water sources, but I ask that we find courage. Our children and grandchildren are counting on us to keep their water safe and accessible for many years to come.

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Ellie Shockley is a social scientist and education researcher. This column represents her personal views and not the views of any organization. She completed a doctorate at the University of Chicago and postdoctorate at Nebraska. She lives in Mandan.

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