COLD SPRING, Minn. (AP) - At the edge of a soybean field, Paul Hoeschen checks the dial on a pump that draws water from deep in the ground.
Hoeschen hopes the test well will provide vital information about the aquifer and whether it could provide critical water for residents and businesses of Cold Spring.
“It’s running 530 gallons a minute,” Hoeschen says after checking the dial. That’s good news, but he added, “The rest of the story will be recovery. When the well is shut off, how fast does it take to get back to static level?”
That’s a question with major financial implications for the city and one of its biggest water users, Cold Spring Brewing Co., the St. Cloud Times (https://on.sctimes.com/1LEAJ7W ) reported.
The city has been struggling to find a new water source since the Department of Natural Resources told the brewery it had to substantially reduce the amount of water it pumps from its wells because of concerns over the effect on a nearby trout stream.
The city is looking for a water source that won’t affect the stream. But the solution is likely to be a costly one, especially if a new treatment plant is needed to remove pollutants from the water.
As Minnesota - once thought to have an unlimited water supply - deals with growing concerns over the abundance and quality of its water, other cities and industries across the state are likely to face a similar situation.
In May, the Legislature directed the DNR to form a group of stakeholders to recommend what level of water use is too much and what effect to lakes, streams and wetlands is tolerable. It’s a process that could have broad implications not just for Cold Spring, but cities and businesses throughout the state.
“We are the test site for the entire process here,” said Rep. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville.
Cold Spring has had to shut down two city wells in recent years due to high nitrate levels, leaving it looking for new sources of water. The city also is looking to supply water to the brewery, which has been told by the DNR it must reduce the amount of water it draws from its own wells.
Hoeschen, who is leaving next month after 20 years as Cold Spring’s public works director, has spent the last couple of years searching for a new source of water. That’s involved combing through drilling logs and running test wells at several unsuccessful sites.
Then Hoeschen located 10 promising acres on the city’s northeast side, a safe distance from the trout stream.
“The geology looked good out here,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of water out here.”
The city signed a contract with the property owner, who agreed to allow the test wells and to sell the property to the city if the site pans out. The monitoring equipment shows the level of the aquifer, how much water is available and how quickly the water level recovers after pumping.
If the results are positive, as Hoeschen hopes, a high-capacity well will be installed. Then the water can be tested to see if it contains any pollutants that would require treatment.
Hoeschen hopes four wells could be installed on the property and the water pumped a mile away into the city’s water system. If no treatment plant is needed, the wells could be operating by summer 2016, he said.
But if the test results show high levels of iron, manganese or nitrates, a treatment plant would be needed. That would add two years to the project and raise the cost to as much as $8 million. For a city of about 4,000 people, “that’s a lot of money,” Hoeschen said.
Although the city plans to seek a state grant or bonding money, the likely result will be higher rates and possibly assessments for water users.
“We do a lot of things to save money,” Hoeschen said. “And then to spend millions of dollars because of a law is really heartbreaking.”
Cold Spring’s situation highlights a critical question facing state officials who are in charge of protecting natural resources: How much ground water can be used before nearby lakes, streams and wetlands are affected?
That threshold is important for Minnesota, “because we use quite a bit of water and we have a lot of water resources,” said Jason Moeckel, DNR section manager.
The current law says groundwater resources must be managed sustainably, with no negative impacts to surface waters like streams, lakes and wetlands, Moeckel said. But there aren’t any criteria for determining those negative impacts, he said.
“These statutes were all constructed sort of piecemeal over time, and it leaves some ambiguity,” Moeckel said.
Central Minnesota lawmakers Howe and Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, have tried to address Cold Spring’s situation with bills prohibiting the DNR from denying water use permits to breweries, or removing Cold Spring Creek from the list of designated trout streams. They’ve also proposed raising the threshold for impacts to surface waters from “negative” to “substantial.”
Howe said there didn’t seem to be any scientific basis behind the threshold.
“The method that they have so far, where they just arbitrarily pick a number, really put businesses and cities and people who have water appropriation permits at a loss how to make this work,” he said.
One of the bills called for setting a threshold at 20 percent impact, which Moeckel told legislators could have sweeping implications statewide. Instead, the DNR suggested it would make sense to develop a scientific basis for determining what that threshold should be.
The bill that passed into law this year requires the DNR to put together a group including representatives from agriculture, environmental groups, businesses and community water suppliers. The group must complete a report by Dec. 15.
Depending on what the Legislature does with the recommendations, the report could affect water users throughout the state, especially in concentrated areas of heavy water use, Moeckel said.
“These thresholds might say, ‘You’re using too much already,’ ” he said. Or they might tell a community or business that its current water level use is OK, but if it grows in the future, it will hit a limit, he said.
Moeckel consistently advises communities that while Minnesota’s water situation isn’t as dire as drought-stricken California or Texas, it’s still serious enough to take action.
“If we can figure out where those thresholds are, we can do a better job of planning how to meet our water supply needs,” Moeckel said. “It can be a tough issue to solve, but at least that way, we’d have an idea and we can get ahead of it, rather than deal with it in a crisis.”
Hoeschen hopes that the DNR report will help other communities plan ahead and be better prepared than Cold Spring was to face the costly effects of water regulations.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t know the financial impact of this law. They’re just not aware,” he said. “Maybe if they can see it coming, they can raise their water rates and start saving for it.”
Information from: St. Cloud Times, https://www.sctimes.com
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