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Part VII: Strengthening the System

The drilling of wells in the Buffalo Aquifer and the completion of the water treatment plant in 1951, coupled with the initial delivery of hydroelectric power from the federal Bureau of Reclamation in 1957, ushered in what the Moorhead Water and Light Department hoped would be a quiet era of growth and stability.

 

Such was not to be the case. In the early years of Bureau power, electric service to Moorhead and other preference customers was not as reliable as planners hoped it would be. Investor-owned electric utilities in the Upper Midwest fought the growth of the federal system, primarily by denying right-of-way for federally-owned transmission lines.

 

The hydroelectric power arm of the Bureau of Reclamation—later known as the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA)—eventually built a high-voltage transmission loop through the Dakotas and Minnesota during the 1960s and 1970s. The success of the Bureau’s transmission program was due in large part to a landmark legal decision in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that Otter Tail Power Company of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, could not refuse to deliver Bureau power to a former municipal customer.

 

The Supreme Court decision in the Elbow Lake (Otter Tail) case did not come until 1973. By that time, the Bureau and the Corps of Engineers had completed additional dams on the Missouri River at Ft. Randall, Big Bend, and Gavins Point. Investor-owned utilities in the region offered in 1962 to firm up hydroelectric power on the river with steam generation, and public power pushed ahead with a plan first outlined by Federal Power Commissioner Leland Olds in 1959. Olds suggested building mine-mouth steam electric power plants in the lignite fields of North Dakota and the low-sulfur coal fields of Montana and Wyoming; his suggestion led to the creation of Basin Electric Power Cooperative and the Missouri Basin Municipal Power Agency.

garrisonpower
Some 40 Moorhead and Fargo dignitaries were on hand Wednesday (Nov. 7, 1956) as Mayor Thornley Wells
"threw the switch" bringing the Garrison Dam electricity into the city's power vein.  In this photo,
the Mayor poses with Public Service Supt. Joseph Young.

 

Still, Bureau power in the early years, while extremely inexpensive and a boon to Moorhead rate payers, was not always reliable. Moreover, the Moorhead Water and Light Department was not used to complaints from residents about outages. "We had experienced several outages on the Bureau system" during the 1950s, recalls Tom McCauley, a North Dakota State University electrical engineering graduate employed by the Water and Light Department since his college years in the early 1940s.

 

The Water and Light Department had built a 69,000-volt power line from a West Fargo substation to the Moorhead power plant to take delivery of the Bureau power. In 1958, the Commission decided to take measures to back up the Bureau power by building a 10,000-kilowatt gas combustion turbine at the power plant. Voters approved a bond issue in 1959, and the Brown-Boveri turbine was installed in 1960.

 

The Brown-Boveri gas turbine gave Water and Light Department officials a measure of much needed comfort at a time when the young federal system was still experiencing start-up problems. The $950,000 price tag for the new turbine was both an insurance policy and an investment in a cost-savings measure for the Department.

 

The savings in operation were also passed along to rate payers. In July 1961, the Commission instituted a 2 percent rate reduction for electric customers, the second such rate reduction in two years. Residents paid 4 cents a kwh for the first 50 kwh, 2.8 cents for the next 100 kwh, 2.4 cents for the next 50 kwh and 1.8 cents per kwh for any usage over 200 kwh per month.

 

While the Department was strengthening the electric system, it was also moving aggressively to upgrade Moorhead’s water treatment and supply.

 

The Switch to River Water

After more than half-a-century of getting its water supply from wells, Moorhead was faced with a weighty decision in the late 1950s: whether to begin taking its water from the Red River of the North.

 

blenderPlanners had hoped that the expansion into the Buffalo Aquifer wells in 1950 would provide the city with clean water for as much as 30 years into the future. But the planners had estimated that the city’s population would stay relatively stable during the 1950s and 1960s. From 1950 to 1960, however, the city’s population grew by more than 50 percent, and the demand on the wells east of town proved far greater than anyone had estimated 10 years before.

 

Hydrologists pointed out that there was enough water in the Buffalo Aquifer to supply Moorhead’s needs, at least through the 1960s. But the water treatment plant had been designed to handle an average use of about two-million-gallons per day, and all indications were that that level would be exceeded by the early 1960s, at the latest.

 

One solution that had been investigated as early as 1947 was to take water from the Red River of the North. Almost from the beginning of its existence, Fargo had tapped the river for its drinking water, but some Moorhead residents opposed taking water from the river. Moorhead residents took a sense of civic pride in the fact that they had "pure" aquifer water from wells, and switching to river water caused some concerns.

 

Nevertheless, the decision was made in 1959 to go with river water and build a new treatment plant to upgrade the 1950 facilities.

 

Water was a contentious issue in Moorhead during the 1950s. Superintendent Joe Young had gotten into trouble with the Minnesota Health Department when he refused to chlorinate the city’s water supply early in the decade. Late in the same decade, residents argued about the wisdom of fluoridating the city’s water supply, defeating the proposition 2-1 at one election in November 1958. It was not until the new plant was up and running in 1960 that Moorhead’s water supply was fluoridated.

 

When the new water plant, adjacent to the 1950 treatment plant, began operations in the spring of 1961, Moorhead tripled its capacity from three-million-gallons per day to nine-million-gallons per day. Construction of the plant had come in at just under $1.2 million, which included construction of the water plant addition and pumping station; a river intake station; a 2.4 million-gallon, ground-level storage reservoir; and associated pipelines to handle the flow.

A New Superintendent, A New Turbine And A New City Hall

The late 1960s and early 1970s were momentous years for Moorhead’s community-owned utility. The Public Service Commission replaced Joe Young as superintendent in 1967, installed a new 22,000-kilowatt turbine at the power plant, and moved into new offices in the brand new city hall on Center Avenue in 1973.

turbine
Workers install a 10,000 kilowatt gas-combustion turbine to
back up hydropower from the Bureau of Reclamation in 1960.

Young, who had been superintendent of the utility since just after George Dienst’s death in 1946, had presided over tremendous growth in the department. But by 1967, Young was 70 years old and showing no signs of stepping down. Tom McCauley, who had joined the utility full-time in the 1950s, was second-in-command and was, in effect, running the department. McCauley had approached Young about taking over; the superintendent told him that he felt just like Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev and he didn’t know if he was ever going to retire.

 

McCauley threatened to resign and go elsewhere. The Commission, concerned about succession, pressured Young to retire. The utility was then in the midst of installing a new 22,000-kilowatt Brown-Boveri turbine at the power plant, and Young was hired to oversee the work. McCauley was named to replace him as superintendent. A year later, in the spring of 1968, the City Council enforced the city’s compulsory retirement ordinance, and Young was off the city’s payroll for the first time in 22 years. Young retired to Minneapolis, where he died two years later.

 

tapeThe third major change for the utilities department came in 1973 when a new city hall was erected as part of Moorhead’s Center Avenue Urban Renewal Plan. For much of the twentieth century, Center Avenue had been Moorhead’s commercial hub. But by the early 1970s, the Avenue was dotted with closed-up shops. However, City Hall, the Moorhead Police Department and the Moorhead Fire Department were all located along Center Avenue, and when the city announced plans to build a new City Hall on Center Avenue, it was envisioned as the cornerstone of an ambitious urban renewal project.

 

Vivian Matson started work in the customer service office of the Water and Light Department in December 1969. The Department’s office was then located in the old City Hall at Center Avenue and Fifth Street. "It was old," she said. "The floor was heaving in the basement. They stored the Civil Defense crackers and barrels of candy down there. We had candy and toilet paper. We were prepared."

 

When the new City Hall began construction just down the street, Matson remembered being thrilled "watching that building go up and knowing we were going to be in it."

 

The 1970s also brought additional changes for Matson and her coworkers, as they unionized with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, along with the rest of city employees in 1975.

 

 

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