Roadside wells -- is free water better water?

Roadside spring
Dickinson Spring, on Highway 55 west of the Twin Cities, offers up a constantly flowing stream of water.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

There's a small roadside stop along Highway 55 west of the Twin Cities between the towns of Buffalo and Rockford. At first glance it looks like just a place for travelers to pull over and stretch their legs.

But this stop offers something unique -- a pipe that produces a year round stream of water. It's called Dickinson Spring, and most days it draws a steady line of patrons with water jugs in hand.

Al Wallin is happy to perform an impromptu taste test at Dickinson Spring. Wallin leans down and gulps the rushing water midstream. He holds the water in his mouth for a moment like a fine wine.

"It's just clean, cold, clean delicious tasting water," Wallin says.

Al Wallin
Al Wallin has been drinking water from Dickinson Spring for 30 years. He prefers it to the water from his tap at home in St. Louis Park.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Wallin has been drinking water from Dickinson Spring for 30 years. He uses it at his cabin near Annadale. And he prefers it to the water from his tap at home in St. Louis Park.

He loads two five-gallon jugs in his vehicle and gets back on the road.

Just a few minutes later another motorist pulls over, takes a plastic jug from the back of an SUV and heads to the constantly flowing facet.

Jeff Smith lives in Apple Valley. Dickinson Spring is about halfway between his house and the cabin he owns in Glenwood.

"We have hard water at the cabin. It's not really drinkable. So when we come by we bring back about six gallons of water or more," Smith says.

Buying water just doesn't seem to make sense to Smith when Dickinson Spring is at his disposal.

"You can buy stuff in the store that says spring water, and I thought, 'My gosh, I have a spring right here.' So it's free. So here I am," Smith says.

Jeff Smith
Jeff Smith says the water at his cabin isn't drinkable, so he fills up several water jugs whenever he drives by Dickinson Spring.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

A nearby roadside placard provides some history of this spot.

In 1914 a farmer dug a well here, but it went dry during the drought of the 1930s. In 1938, a road crew nicked a pipe from the well. It started flowing again and has ever since. The bubbling spout of water was named after the local ghost town of Dickinson.

But is the water from Dickinson Spring safe to drink?

Yes, according to Mike Convery with the Minnesota Department of Health's well water program.

"Because it's a wayside rest along Highway 55 it is something of a public water supply. People have utilized it fairly regularly so it's something that we have tested, and continue to test," Convery says.

Because of its popularity, the Minnesota Health Department monitors Dickinson Spring for a wide variety of contaminants.

Dickinson Spring
In 1914 a farmer dug a well at the site of Dickinson Spring but it went dry during the drought of the 1930s. When a road crew nicked a pipe from the well in 1938, it started flowing again and has ever since. The bubbling spout of water was named Dickinson Spring after the local ghost town of Dickinson.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

But the state doesn't test most of these naturally fed water supplies. Convery says that's because testing can't keep up with a spring's fluctuating water quality.

"There certainly are instances where if I went out there today I may get a safe test, but you have no confidence that tomorrow you'll get an equally safe test again," Convery says.

Many people are convinced spring water carries curative properties. But Convery says it's more likely to carry pollutants the water picked up while soaking into the ground.

"Whatever the land uses around there certainly has the potential to impact the water quality coming out of the spring," Convery says.

For that reason, the Department of Health doesn't recommend drinking water that comes from springs.

There are some exceptions. For instance, the Frederick-Miller Spring in Eden Prairie is regularly tested by the city of Eden Prairie for safety.

And of course, Dickinson Spring has been deemed safe.

But there's a good reason for that. Despite its name, it's not a spring, it's a flowing artesian well. That means its water comes from deep underground, far away from potential surface pollutants.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.