Water worries

MARSHALL – It’s an essential resource, but water isn’t easy to find in southwest Minnesota.

The search for an additional source of water for homes and businesses in Marshall has led Marshall Municipal Utilities north into Yellow Medicine County. While MMU General Manager Brad Roos said the development of a new well field will help ensure a steady supply for the city, sustainable water use is a topic of ongoing concern across the state.

“Finding water sources in southwest Minnesota is a challenging proposition,” Roos said. When an underground aquifer can be found, the water is often of poor quality and requires treatment before it can be used. But the search is a vital one for both area residents and the local economy.

“Marshall requires a lot of water for businesses here,” Roos said. “It’s a wet industry town.”

MMU currently has two well fields, with a total of 11 active wells supplying water for its customers. While Roos said those wells are meeting local needs, they are struggling to do so. MMU plans to bring a third well field – located in Sandnes Township in Yellow Medicine County – on line in 2015.

“We felt we had to diversify with a third source and doing so would increase our ability to reliably meet community water requirements,” Roos said.

Roos said MMU had been searching for a third water source for the past 17 years.

The two well fields currently in use by MMU are located in Lyon County. One, in an aquifer south of Marshall, was brought on line in 1956, Roos said. The second, in the Dudley aquifer east of Marshall, was brought on line in 1988.

Both fields are still meeting local water needs, but the demands of pumping and current drought conditions put them under increased stress, Roos said.

“Hopefully with the return of some normal precipitation,” he said, production will stay strong.

Marshall produces about 1.1 billion gallons of water a year, Roos said. In addition, MMU purchases 100 million gallons a year from Lincoln Pipestone Rural Water, as part of a two-year contract. The water bought from the rural water utility is sold to the Archer Daniels Midland plant in Marshall.

Maintaining a steady supply of water is a challenge faced by communities around the state, not just Marshall, said Jim Sehl, a groundwater specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. It’s made more difficult by a lack of information on how much water is available and how much of it can be responsibly used.

“Nobody can agree on a true definition of sustainability,” Sehl said.

Sehl said the DNR operates about 800 monitoring wells around the state, which are used to keep tabs on groundwater levels. However, they don’t give a very complete picture. Thousands more wells would be needed for that, Sehl said.

In southwest Minnesota, finding adequate water supplies has always been an issue, Sehl said. The majority of water used in the region comes from underground aquifers. A combination of factors can lead to depleted water supplies, from increased demand for water for consumption, irrigation and industry, to extreme dry conditions that prevent aquifers from recovering.

State officials said Thursday that a proposal introduced by Gov. Mark Dayton and the DNR could help the state get a better handle on sustainable water use. The proposal, which needs legislative approval, would increase fees for more than 7,000 water permit holders statewide that use more than one million gallons of water a year. Rates would go from an average of about $7.50 for one million gallons of water to $15, the DNR said in its announcement.

DNR officials said the plan would also increase funding to monitor and manage groundwater levels.

Maintaining a steady water supply can also mean big investments in local infrastructure. The DNR has granted MMU a permit to develop the Sandnes well field, and Roos said the utility hopes to have the field operating in early 2015. However, in order to do that, an underground main needs to be built to bring the water to Marshall.

On Wednesday, the Marshall Municipal Utilities Commission received a route study and cost estimates for the water main project. The cost of the main is currently estimated at $13.6 million to $14.4 million, Roos said. Construction is planned for next year.

The cost to build the water main will likely affect customers’ utility bills, Roos said, but he does not have specific estimates at this time. It’s an issue the MMU Commission will continue to work on, he said.

Even with a third water source coming for Marshall, Roos said practicing water conservation is beneficial for the community. MMU encourages watering lawns on an odd-even schedule by home address number during the summer, and provides incentives for water-saving fixtures like low-flow toilets. Even small changes can add up, he said. An average MMU residential customer uses about 63 gallons of water a day, which Roos said is significantly less than in some other Minnesota cities.

MMU also has a plan for water allocation in case of a shortage, in compliance with state law, Roos said. Depending on the severity of a water shortage, the planned responses range from restricting non-essential water uses, to asking large industrial users to decrease water consumption.