The sweet, cool taste of water is refreshing on a hot, dusty day. You won't go without when you visit Jake Longbrake's place, located just north of Thunder Butte in north-central South Dakota. But that hasn't always been the case.

For the past 10 years, drought has left very little surface water at Longbrake's operation in the heart of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. In fact, of the 22 dams used to retain surface water, 17 of them were dry in 2006. As any rancher knows, it's hard to raise cattle when there isn't any water.

Longbrake thought he fixed the problem in January 2006 by drilling 3,080 ft. to an aquifer. After installing more than 2.5 miles of water lines to various pastures, the well was up and running by April 1.

But in a few weeks, problems arose. “About the end of April, I started having a cow or two die, then another one,” Longbrake recalls. In addition, he had 20 stillborn calves that season. “Memorial Day weekend I lost a yearling bull and two cows.” He immediately shut off the well for more than a year.

“When I had cattle on this water, they'd never readily drink. They were kind of forced to drink it,” Longbrake recalls.

To figure out what was going on, Longbrake dispatched samples of feed, water and animal tissue for analysis. The results were normal, until he sent a third water sample to Mid-Continent testing laboratory in Rapid City, SD, for a total dissolved solids (TDS) analysis.

“They figured the sodium level was 4,200 parts/million (ppm). But the sodium chloride level was 8,500 ppm — and the combination of the two is what killed the cows,” Longbrake says.

Finding a solution

Mel Falcon, founder and CEO of Aqua-Envirotech, classifies Longbrake's results as “extreme water,” which is what his Williston, ND-based water treatment company specializes in. Longbrake contacted Falcon in March 2007 on the recommendation of a local well driller.

Longbrake's water issue is becoming more frequent for ranchers in North Dakota, South Dakota and eastern Montana, Falcon says, because of aquifers depleted by drought. As ranchers drill deeper wells — the tradeoff of which is salinity — it's not suitable for cattle.

“Most of the water we deal with is over 1,500 TDS in sulphates. And, according to the experts, anything over that level is toxic to cattle — especially younger cattle,” Falcon says. His solution to such highly mineralized water is a high-pressure, reverse-osmosis system.

Falcon describes it as a reverse of nature. “When it rains, you've got pure water. When it hits the earth, it starts absorbing minerals, resulting in water with high mineral content. This system de-mineralizes the water.”

As pressurized water enters the membrane system, hydrogen molecules penetrate a plastic barrier, pulling oxygen molecules with it. This ionization process rejects heavier materials, such as sodium. It differs from a filter, which is made of coarse material, in that it's able to siphon off anything dissolved in the water.

The results

By working with Aqua-Envirotech, Longbrake installed four pumps, three reverse-osmosis membranes, a 10,000-gal. tank to store good water and a lagoon for discharge water.

Water straight from the well has a conductivity of 16,000 ppm. Conductivity is a rough guide to the water's TDS volume, as higher levels of dissolved solids allow the water to conduct more electricity. Once water passes through the reverse-osmosis membranes, Longbrake's good water is 1,300 ppm; discharge water is 24,000 ppm and tastes very salty.

“The well will taste like that, but the conductivity isn't as strong,” Longbrake says. The discharge lagoon is fenced off, and bentonite seals against ground leakage. If cattle do get near the lagoon, he says they may drink it once, but not twice.

The entire system makes about 12-13 gals./min. of good water. He figures the system will last 25 years, but the membranes will need to be replaced within 5-7 years. Longbrake checks the system daily for leaks, conductivity, temperature and gallons of production. A float in the storage tank triggers a system startup when the water level drops 1,000 gals.

Altogether, Longbrake has spent nearly $300,000 on his water endeavors, some of it cost-shared. The membrane system and the building that houses it cost nearly $100,000; the remainder went into the water system. The cost of membrane systems varies based on the volume of water requiring treatment.

“Jake was one of the people willing to try this,” Falcon says of Longbrake. “It's a little expensive, there's no doubt about that, and it requires a little maintenance, but he's understood it and been able to do it so far.”

It's all worth it, in Longbrake's opinion. Looking ahead, he's secured an EQIP plan to keep extending water lines. “What I notice now is that when cattle drink, they'll drink less and be more content with less water than they were before.”

Table 1. Recommendations for livestock water use based on total dissolved solids (TDS)
TDS
(ppm or mg/L)
Comments
Less than 3,000 Usually satisfactory for most livestock.
3,000-5,000 May not cause adverse effects to adult livestock.
Growing/young livestock could be affected by looseness or poor feed conversion.
5,000-7,000 Should not be used for pregnant or lactating females. Usually a laxative and may result in reduced water intake.
7,000-10,000 Do not use for swine. Do not use for pregnant or lactating ruminants or horses.
10,000 or more May cause brain damage or death.
Source: North Dakota State University publication AS-954, June 2008

Aquifers as water sources

Arden Davis, professor of geological engineering specializing in ground water at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, says it's important to be knowledgeable about aquifers before tapping into them. Ranchers can learn more from the U.S. Geological Survey (www.usgs.gov), state geological surveys, university faculty and local well drillers.

An aquifer is any rock or sediment with spaces to hold water, which water can move through. Recharge areas are places often located at higher elevations, such as the sides of the Black Hills in western South Dakota, where precipitation can infiltrate and filter through rock gradients. Davis says an aquifer's water quality can vary based on its distance from recharge areas.

“The longer water is in contact with rock, the more minerals it can dissolve out, which lowers the water's quality,” Davis says.

Water is worth testing any time its quality is suspect or marginal, he says, and total dissolved solids (TDS) and conductivity are good places to start.

“The more dissolved solids in the water, the better the water will conduct electricity,” Davis says, noting that more dissolved solids will lower the water's drinking quality. TDS and conductivity tests are inexpensive, depending on the analysis, he adds.