Sanford Underground Research Facility conducts yearly water testing

LEAD, S.D. (KOTA TV) - Back in May, we showed you different aspects of the Sanford Underground Research Facility. One of those areas was the water treatment plant, where the water leaving has to go through a multi-step cleaning process.

Out-of-state consultants come in every year to test the water discharged from the Sanford Underground Research Facility. (KOTA TV)

In some continuing coverage of our Sanford Science Series, we're taking an exclusive look at how staff continually check on the water being pumped from the underground into local water sources.

Every year in August, on the banks of Whitewood Creek, crews from Colorado travel to Lead and test the water discharged from the Sanford Underground Lab.

It's to ensure the stream is of good health. The lab has a permit to do this.

"Part of the permit requires us to not only monitor end-of-pipe that is our discharge, but also the stream," said Sanford Lab Environmental Manager John Scheetz. "The stream has an important use of being a fishery, so it's important to document that end-use is being met."

They're monitoring things like the algae, bugs, and fish.

The consultants scrap the algae growing on the rocks, put it in a vial and bring it back to the lab to identify it.

Bugs can be a good indicator of pollution.

"We shuffle our feet around, disturb the bugs, get them up into the water and catch them with a net," said GEI Consultants Project Manager Don Conklin.

The fish are caught by using electro-shocking.

"The fish probably don't think it's a lot of fun, but they generally come back pretty quickly after a minute or so. They're swimming around again. They probably have a good headache, but they're okay," said Conklin.

The consultants start upstream to get a baseline one day, and they head downstream the next. Then, they're able to compare results to make sure the Sanford Lab isn't harming the water.

So far, things are pretty comparable year-to-year.

"There's lots of ups and downs. For example, our fish are down a little this year, probably because of the really high flows you've had over the summer, had some big rains, had a big snowmelt, and so that tends to wash some fish out once in a while," said Conklin.

There's nothing to be concerned about. Every year since 2008 with the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority, the consultants have indicated there's no contamination from the discharge downstream.

"We test our water continuously at the water treatment plant before discharge, but we also test it on a weekly, on a monthly basis," said Scheetz. "Generally in August is the time of year when typically we get the lowest flow, which could mean the most impact of our discharge."

And unlike the algae or the bugs, the fish aren't brought back to a lab for testing, so no need to worry.

"We weigh em, measure em, count em up here, wave goodbye and let them back into the river," said Conklin.

The water treatment plant pumps out nearly 700 million gallons a year, which may seem like a lot, but the impact is minimal based on all of the testing staff do.

All the data collected is sent to the state as part of the permit requirements.