At two-hour discussion Thursday in Erskine, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
officials say they're concerned about what's transpiring with dry-well complaints and the overall water supply in acquifers in Polk County east of Crookston, but they're not worried or panicked
ERSKINE – During a two-hour discussion Thursday in the cafeteria of the Win-E-Mac School in Erskine about the water supply in underground aquifers in an area of Polk County east of Crookston – adjacent to wells that supply the Crookston community with water – the word “concerned” was uttered several times by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials, who have seen an increase in recent years in approved high-use well permits and more pending applications for such permits, a trend that has been accompanied by increased complaints of “domestic” well users running out of water.
But almost every time someone said they were concerned, someone else was quick to follow up that the DNR is not especially worried about the long-term supply in the aquifers in question, and certainly no one is panicked.
Around 35 people attended the meeting, which DNR officials said was organized by District 1B State Rep. Deb Kiel of Crookston, who attended with fellow Republican, District 1 State Sen. Mark Johnson of East Grand Forks.
At the heart of the discussion was a trio of “well interference” complaints. In other words, three domestic well users in an oval-shaped area of concern in Polk County east of Crookston extending to Mentor and Erskine have had water supply shortages in their wells. While the wells aren’t technically dry, they’ve had issues with being able to pump water from them. The DNR, explained Carmelita Wilson, the agency’s well interference coordinator, is currently conducting aquifer tests to determine if the complaints are “valid.” If they are, she said, in early 2018 the high-volume industrial well-water users in the area and any other farmers who are using wells to irrigate that are suspected of contributing to the water shortages in one or more of the domestic well interference complaints will attend a meeting, where they’d be expected to discuss ways to financially compensate the complainants for what they need to have done to remedy their situation. That could involve relocating a well pump to a lower depth, digging the current well deeper, or digging a whole new well.
That’s basically how the well-interference state law works, Nelson said. When complaints are deemed valid, those determined to be responsible for the well-water shortage are required to pay for whatever fixes are necessary. The area in question already has seen several large irrigators compensate domestic users who have had water supply shortages, said Bob Guthrie, DNR appropriations hydrologist.
Guthrie showed a chart that indicates an a significant increase in approved high-use permits each year since 2013, more pending applications, and still more that have yet to officially apply for a high-use well permit. While no one on Thursday made a direct correlation between an increase in domestic well-water shortages and the increased high-use well permits, Nicole Bernd, district manager of the West Polk Red Lake Watershed District in Crookston said she couldn’t help but wonder if permits were approved in rapid fashion mostly because the high-use applicants had the finances on hand to make it happen. “Sorry to say, but I have it in my mind that permits are going out to anyone who applies and pays their money,” Bernd said.
To that, Ellen Considine, DNR hydrogeologist supervisor and other officials in the cafeteria said that every well permit application, large or small, is vetted in great detail before anything is approved. And Tony Bachand, a farmer in the area who irrigates, stressed that once a high-use well permit is approved, permit-holders such as himself must adhere to a very strict and incredibly detailed monitoring process, and must file detailed reports with the State every year. It’s even more stringent and intense, Bachand said, in the event irrigators like him exceed the maximum annual water pumping limit on their permit.
“The DNR has a very thorough process,” he said. “They make farmers jump through lots of hoops before they allow them to pump, and the hoops don’t go away (once farmers are approved and start irrigating).”
Still, as the discussion continued, Bernd said she couldn’t help but think that money is also at the root of the DNR’s approach to dealing with domestic well-water shortage complaints. “I’m hearing it’s a quick fix and all is well (after irrigators pay for the fixes that domestic well-users have to make to their wells in order to maintain a sufficient water supply),” Bernd said. “But where’s the discussion over people drawing down this water going about reducing their usage? Is this just going to keep happening?”
“No, it’s not a quick fix; we don’t just say pay the money and here we go,” Nelson replied. “The DNR does analyze every complaint to make sure we’re comfortable with a good solution that the aquifer can sustain. It’s not just a quick fix to get it off our table.”
The aquifers in question are typically drawn down during the growing season and then “recharge” afterward. Water use typically goes up during drier growing seasons as well, as was the case during the 2017 growing season. The stakeholders in the cafeteria on Thursday seem especially interested in the recharge rates next spring of the aquifers in the area of concern.
“What we’re most worried about today is the domestic well interference, that the aquifers are so drawn down there’s not enough left for domestic well users,” Considine explained. “There are more appropriations permits now than before and also into the future, and we’re starting to worry about this happening more.”
Two men with domestic wells at the meeting noted that they’ve had previous well-water supply issues, and the fixes implemented so far have not yet fully done the trick.
Still, Nathan Kestner, DNR regional manager of ecological and water resources, said it’s important for everyone to maintain perspective, and that aquifers have natural ebbs and flows over time, and some of those ebbs and flows can become significant peaks, and valleys.
“We have to be careful what we conclude. Does what we’re seeing mean we have an unsustainable water supply? We don’t know that and that’s not what we’re saying today,” Kestner said. “We have a robust process in place, we’re running aquifer tests, and there are steps we are taking to find solutions that are sustainable. I’m fearful that some people may be concluding the wrong things.”
“What is a sustainable number (of well permits) to keep an aquifer going? When do you just shut it down? That’s what we’re trying to get to,” Nelson added.
“We see these natural ebbs and flows and peaks and valleys, but if (the aquifers) are going down over time and it’s not a fluke, we become worried,” Considine interjected.
Bachand noted that a previous aquifer test that involved his well pumped nine million gallons of water over five days, more than half of what he uses in a year. “It seemed wasteful, but it just shows how serious the DNR is about this situation,” he said. “It’s just a massive undertaking of monitoring.” Bachand added that during the aquifer test, other wells near his didn’t see their water levels drop at all.
Nelson noted that the DNR, through legislation, is trying to be proactive when it comes to long-term water usage. The Demand Reduction Law passed in 2015 demands much stronger water conservation efforts, she said, and is the very reason she was hired. Currently, as part of the law, the DNR is working with the state’s 360 cities with a population of more than 1,000 on required conservation reports. Starting in January 2018, those cities will be reporting their conservation efforts. Also next year as part of the law, Nelson explained, industrial and commercial well users will be required to report their conservation efforts. In two years, towns in Minnesota with less than 1,000 people will have to report their efforts, and in three years, agricultural producers will have to follow suit.
Kiel and Johnson were also invited to speak near the meeting’s conclusion. Johnson spoke of a “twofold concern” that includes providing sustainable water for future generations by using water responsibly, but also “getting permitting done in a responsible time.” Some high-use well permit applications take one or more years to be acted upon, Johnson said, and it’s led to some “growing pains and other issues and concerns.”
“What can we do as legislators to make it a quicker time?” he said. “We need to find a balance between being responsible and being effective.”
Kiel’s family has been in farming for a very long time, and while she said they don’t irrigate, she noted that it takes a major commitment of dollars for a farmer to make the decision to attempt to irrigate. And, she said, it’s not like buying a big tractor and then turning around and selling it if need be. “The decision to irrigate isn’t made on a whim, it’s a serious, serious investment,” Kiel said. “They have to invest before they know (if they’ll be approved). That’s a concern.”
The irrigators Kiel said she’s spoken to don’t want to adversely impact the water supply of their neighbors. “But we need to make sure we get those permits moving just a little bit faster,” Kiel said. “So someone who’s invested isn’t waiting three, four years before they find out if they can flip the switch on that water.”