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Area system has claim to best water

Loren Geerdes, water system operations specialist with the Aurora-Brule Rural Water System, looks over the equipment Tuesday at the system’s plant in Chamberlain. (Sean Ryan/Republic) 1 / 2
Judges taste water last month at the South Dakota Association of Rural Water Systems’ annual conference in Pierre. (Jennifer Bame/SDARWS) 2 / 2

CHAMBERLAIN — If you live within the boundaries of the Aurora-Brule Rural Water System, Loren Geerdes is watching your water.

As a water system operations specialist, he mans the treatment plant just up from the Missouri River in Chamberlain and monitors the filtration system that runs as much as 1,500 gallons per minute before it heads to customers’ faucets. It’s not easy work, but Geerdes loves his job.

That hard work has paid off for Aurora-Brule, which has won the state award for the best tasting water each of the last two years, as awarded by the South Dakota Association of Rural Water Systems at its annual conference in January. Geerdes — who has worked for Aurora-Brule for 25 years — was honored as this year’s rural water operator of the year in South Dakota.

Those who provide the water on a daily basis deflect the accolades and say they’d do the work whether it was being recognized or not.

“It wouldn’t matter if we did or we didn’t,” Geerdes said of winning awards.

“We want clean water. We all drink it, too.”

The system, headquartered in Kimball and formed in 1978, serves more than 1,300 customers in Aurora, Brule and Buffalo counties and in parts of Jerauld, Davison and Douglas counties. The towns of Kimball, Pukwana, Stickney, White Lake, Plankinton, Aurora Center and Gann Valley are also served by the Aurora-Brule system.

The system received upgrades in 2006, when updated treatment equipment was installed at the Aurora-Brule plant on the south edge of Chamberlain, and again in 2009, when $4 million was spent to move the Missouri River intake closer to the Chamberlain railroad bridge and a new raw pumping station was installed.

“Years ago, being on the rural water system was a luxury,” Geerdes said. “Now it really is a necessity.”

Aurora-Brule General Manager Wade Blasius estimates the system uses 1 million gallons per day and that 30 to 40 percent of it is for livestock.

The system receives its water from the Missouri River, where the water is pushed through the water treatment plant and out into 1,000 miles of pipe that serves the surrounding area. Dennis Davis, executive director of the South Dakota Association of Rural Water Systems, said 13 systems around the state use the Missouri River. Blasius said the artesian well water in the Aurora-Brule area is poor and the Missouri River is a critical asset for the region.

“It really is huge for us,” Blasius said. “There’s a lot of communities along the river that use it for drinking water and it’s probably as good a source as you can have.”

But the river also brings challenges. Geerdes said it’s not uncommon for the river’s water quality to change in as few as four hours, and varying conditions can cause more sediment to reach the system and increase the work required at the treatment plant.

Asked to explain why the water system has won awards in back-to-back years, Blasius said he’s not sure Aurora-Brule is doing anything that other rural water systems are not. But he said it affirms the hard work of the system’s employees.

“We have a lot of really good people who work hard,” he said. “Everyone takes it seriously and works to make sure there’s quality drinking water for our customers.”

Davis said it’s “highly unusual” for one system to win two years in a row. Blasius, who has worked for Aurora-Brule for 34 years, said he can only remember it happening one other time.

“There’s not a trick to winning it,” Davis said. “It just comes down to that particular day. But if you’ve tasted Aurora-Brule’s water, you know it’s pretty good.”

Davis said each system is encouraged to bring roughly a gallon of water to the competition in Pierre.

The water is usually transported in glass containers because plastic containers can carry a previous scent even after being rinsed out.

From there, the water sample is split into four quart jars to be used at different times of the contest. Each sample is scored on taste, bouquet (or odor) and clarity, on a scale of 1 to 10 with 30 representing a perfect overall score.

“When you’re talking about wine, you want to have a nice bouquet or smell,” Davis said.

“But with water, you don’t want there to be any smell at all.”

The opening rounds of the competition are judged by the state association staff, operators from around the state and their spouses.

The field is whittled to six samples and new judges from outside the association are selected to judge the final round and award the top three places.

Local members of the Aurora-Brule system often help monitor the water quality by checking on pumping stations throughout the service area, and two employees for Aurora-Brule are on call at all times in case something goes down or stops working.

“I guess in a lot of ways we’re like electricians,” Geerdes said. “People go to their faucet and they expect quality drinking water to come out. And they should. If a call comes, you’ve got to go.”

Geerdes tests the water at the Aurora-Brule plant every day for chlorine and fluoride levels, among other things. Samples are sent monthly to Pierre for testing by state employees and are also sent frequently to South Dakota State University’s lab.

“We’re always checking it,” Geerdes said. “You have to. Our customers are counting on us.”