SW Minn. residential wells run dry as drought drags on

Dry well
Wade Anderson slides the concrete lid back over his well at his house near Worthington in southwest Minnesota Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012. The drought has caused Anderson's well, and others in the region, to run short of water.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Wade Anderson has a new chore outside his home in southwest Minnesota.

Every week, he drops a tape measure into his well to find out how far the water is from the surface. Last Wednesday, it was 10 feet from the top of the well.

That's good, but Anderson knows it won't last. The water level is dropping a little every day.

"It's a bad deal," Anderson said. "It's a really bad deal."

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As severe drought continues across most of the state, residential wells are going dry in parts of Minnesota. The southwest region of the state has been especially hard-hit, making residents and officials scramble to find new water sources as underground aquifers shrink.

The problems started late last summer.

Anderson's wife was watering flowers when the hose ran dry. When he went to investigate and slid the concrete lid off his well, he heard a sound he did not like.

"The echo gave it away. I didn't even have to look in there, I could hear that there wasn't any water," Anderson said. "But I peeked my head in there and, yeah, I could see the pump hanging dry 75 feet down."

The drought had depleted Anderson's underground water supply. Rainfall in southwest Minnesota is nearly 13 inches less than normal just since June.

Anderson managed to get his well working again, at least temporarily, by dumping thousands of gallons of water into it late last summer. The delivery cost: $120. The surge cleared sediment clogging channels that feed water to the well from the aquifer. It not only restored the family's water supply, but also helped their peace of mind.

Three months later, Anderson had to flush the well a second time. He hopes that buys another three months of water. In the meantime, his family is trying to use less to stretch the supply.

"When junior's in brushing his teeth and I can hear the faucet running there, he's pretty quick to be reprimanded to shut the water off," he said.

"When junior's in brushing his teeth and I can hear the faucet running there, he's pretty quick to be reprimanded..."

Anderson is not the only one having problems. Lincoln Pipestone Rural Water, a major supplier in the region, is getting lots of calls for help. The company pipes water to 35 towns and 4,200 farms and rural households. CEO Dennis Healy said about 30 people contacted him this fall to connect to the company's water service, something he calls an unusually large number.

"Most of those people have indicated that they're having well problems," Healy said. "We've had two or three cases where wells have run completely dry and the people were hauling water."

Healy said Lincoln Pipestone wells are pumping enough water now to meet demand. But he's concerned about the future.

"If the drought conditions continue, we're going to have to start insisting that people conserve water and perhaps discontinue some unessential water uses," Healy said.

The state Department of Natural Resources is tracking the drought's impact through some 750 monitoring wells around Minnesota. DNR regional groundwater specialist Jim Sehl said shallow aquifers near the surface have shown some big declines. He said the water surface in a monitoring well in Watonwan County dropped nearly 8 feet.

"Water level was historically about 15 feet below the land surface," Sehl said. "Now it's about 22 feet."

Shrinking aquifers are not only affecting the water supply, he said. They've also sparked conflicts.

More households are filing formal complaints about a shortage of well water due to overuse by someone nearby. There have been eight so far this year, compared to one or two in a normal year. The most common complaint is that a crop irrigator is sucking so much ground water that the resident's well doesn't have enough.

"We'll go out and we'll do an investigation to determine what's causing the problem," Sehl said.

If irrigation is the cause, the farmer has to work out a settlement with the homeowner. Sometimes it means paying to dig a new well.

As Wade Anderson slid his well's concrete lid back in place, he said he's considering his options but said he'll probably be forced to connect to a rural water system, which will cost $16,000.

"It's an ungodly amount of money, but we're over a barrel right now," Anderson said. "We don't have any choice."

That's because the drought shows no signs of ending, and Anderson can't go without a dependable water supply for his family.