Dakota Buttes Museum hosts Southwest Water history class for high schoolers

Frank Turner

The Dakota Buttes Museum hosted former House of Representatives legislator Lenny Jacobs and Adams County Southwest Water Authority director Jonathan Eaton this Wednesday to teach a history class about the Southwest Water Authority for Hettinger High School students. There, the students from Jason LeFebre’s North Dakota Studies II class learned where their water comes from when they turn on the sink.  

“Our small class of seven students has been fortunate enough to learn about our area’s history and culture through some walking/talking primary sources. Every Wednesday we venture down to the Dakota Buttes Museum and interact with our local experts on a variety of topics,” said LeFebre. “It often has the feel of a grandparent sitting down and talking about the good old days with the next generation. The students gain some knowledge and perspective as to where the community has evolved over the decades.” 

For those who do not know, according to Eaton and Jacobs, the drinking water in Hettinger comes from a massive, complex pipeline system run by the Southwest Water Authority. The water, which originates in Lake Sakakawea, runs all the way from the Missouri River to major towns and rural locations in southwest North Dakota including Hettinger. Before the Southwest Water Authority built a pipeline system throughout southwest North Dakota, all water in Hettinger was acquired through wells.  

“When I got elected,” said Jacobs, “I took a gallon jug of brown water to the legislature and people wouldn’t believe it. They said, ‘you don’t drink this water, do you?’ and I said, ‘Oh yes.’ They said, ‘It looks like coke.’” 

According to Jacobs, the brown jug of water he presented at the legislature ended up in Washington D.C. and resulted in the Southwest Water Authority getting over a million dollars to go toward the Southwest Water pipeline project. 

“In my house we had white water, but sometimes that well wouldn’t have enough water, so we had to turn on the other well that had this brown water in it. You fill the tub with water and if you put your hand down three inches, you couldn’t see it.” 

According to Eaton, some wells provided brown water that was potable and perfectly find. However, each well had variable quality.  

“Some [brown water] is really good, but some of it is just terrible,” said Eaton, “There were inconsistencies everywhere.” 

The Southwest Water pipeline project brought a consistent source of clean water to many parts of rural North Dakota.  

“As far as area and users, [the Southwest Water system] is the largest in North Dakota,” said Eaton.  

According to Jacobs, meetings to discuss the water situation in Hettinger started in 1970 and continued from there.  

“1986 is when we got the spade where we shoveled the first dirt,” said Jacobs. 

The pipeline project was one that took an incredible amount of coordination from Southwest North Dakota. According to Jacobs, without the cooperation of many small communities in North Dakota banding together, getting Missouri river water out to Hettinger and other small communities would not have been possible. 

Eaton said that after years of intense planning and work the water eventually got to Hettinger in the mid-90’s.  

“Jonathan Eaton and Lenny Jacobs were wonderful at describing the issues Hettinger has had in its past when trying to provide clean water…” said LeFebre, “It was fascinating to hear the stories Lenny and Jon told about the dedication and vision the people in the area had towards bettering the lives of their neighbors and getting Hettinger in on the ground floor of such an impressive project.”