The ice-cold water flowing from an open-air spigot drew a steady stream of cars to a pullout in Eden Prairie.
They left their cars running as they filled up plastic jugs, thermoses, water cooler bottles and other containers from the Fredrick-Miller Spring.
A man who stopped by Thursday morning said it makes his coffee taste better. One woman said it’s the only water that she and her Chihuahua will tolerate. Another man fetched water for his brother’s fish tank, so clean that it needs no treatment.
None of them seemed perturbed by the city’s sign warning that “even though the water is tested, we cannot assure its safety at all times.”
Those tests show no reason to fear for the health of the spring first diverted into a public tap about 1890 and untreated to this day. That places the government in a somewhat delicate situation: discouraging people from drinking from springs and simultaneously taking some steps to ensure they won’t make you sick.
“Are springs sources of safe water?” asks a Minnesota Department of Health brochure. “Usually not.”
“The whole thing is kind of tricky,” said Stew Thornley, health educator with the Health Department’s drinking water section.
In the city, with heavily treated and tested water flowing out of everyone’s tap, some go to extraordinary lengths to collect water the old-fashioned way. They do it out of fears of fluoridation, or because of the chlorine-free taste, or simply because it’s free.
Some favorite spots, such as the pumps around Lake Harriet in Minneapolis and the old Schmidt Brewery well in St. Paul, are among 6,000 non-community water systems regulated by the Health Department, Thornley said. Springs, on the other hand, present a particular challenge, with no feasible way to treat water bubbling out of the earth.
Yet an artesian spring is a holy place. It’s where the planet yields life-giving liquid. With groundwater under assault by development and agriculture, it’s amazing that any springs survive in the Twin Cities.
Just west of Flying Cloud Airport, Spring Road dips into a wooded hollow next to babbling Riley Creek. The city of Eden Prairie marks the location of Fredrick-Miller Spring with a historical plaque noting how William Fredrick and his neighbors first channeled the spring into a public tap more than a century ago. The water that once seeped out of the shallow aquifer now flows constantly through a galvanized pipe into a concrete box covered with a grating.
More than 20 years ago, the Health Department urged the city to shut the spring down, Thornley said. “The quality of water in springs can change so quickly,” he said, because it can respond to whatever’s spilled or dumped in the watershed.
Instead, the city makes it convenient for people to drink to their stomach’s content. The popularity of Fredrick-Miller Spring puzzles Rick Wahlen, the city’s utilities manager. Wahlen said no one in Eden Prairie wants to shut it down, but he has encountered plenty of suspicious questions from citizens when they see a city worker taking samples of the water.
The city tests monthly for total coliform, an indicator of potential harmful bacterial contamination, and nitrates, which can come from fertilizer used on yards and fields, among other sources. The most recent test found no coliform, and nitrates of about 2 parts per million. That’s about a fifth of the level allowed in drinking water.
Mary Tetzloff, who paid a visit to the spring last Thursday, said it did make her feel slightly more confident to know the city tests the water. To Tetzloff, the water has an elemental taste.
“It tastes like oxygen,” she said. “It tastes like air.”
It was 5 degrees that morning, and the ground around the spring box was slippery with mounds of ice. Tetzloff rested a cardboard box full of empty glass juice bottles next to the tap. She filled them one by one, loaded them back into her car and took a few gallons of pure Eden Prairie home to Bloomington.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.