Drought threatens to empty water wells in parts of Minnesota

A private residential water well
Drought conditions in July 2021 are threatening some Minnesota wells that rely on rain to recharge. In severe cases, shallow wells are out of water.
Submitted photo

Parts of Minnesota saw much-needed rain over the weekend, but it wasn't enough to break the ongoing drought. And the abnormally dry conditions are threatening some private water wells that rely on rain to recharge.

In severe cases, shallow wells are out of water.

"There are households in Minnesota right now that are out of water that are having to get by on bottled water," said Ellen Considine, a hydrologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

People across the state rely on groundwater for irrigation, municipal water supplies and household wells.

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“When we're in a period of drought, people tend to need more water. I mean, it's hard to do a good job conserving water when you need it the most," said Nathan Kestner who works for the DNR in northwest Minnesota, where the drought is in the extreme range.

Kestner said there's still a good supply of water underground — but it may be dropping out of reach for shallow wells.

Considine said the DNR is receiving more domestic out-of-water calls and complaints of well interference, mostly from the northwest region.

“We've seen already more well interferences this year than the previous several years combined — and we're only halfway through well complaint season," she said.

The agency has recorded 27 low water or out-of-water calls so far in 2021, compared to eight in 2020. The DNR says even if some complaints are not directly related to drought, it’s clear that there is a big uptick.

Sometimes the complaints are due to well malfunctions, but other times wells are simply out of water.

Depending where you are in Minnesota, household wells usually go down 60 to 200 feet. Many shallow wells rely on rain to supply their aquifer.

Carmelita Nelson, a water conservationist with the DNR, said irrigators and municipalities pumping from deeper aquifers can affect more-shallow wells.

“Aquifers are kind of like a three-layer cake. There’s shallow aquifers at the top where most homeowners are at," she said. "And then there's sort of the intermediate level, and then there's the very deepest ones. They often are connected — not always, but often are connected and so they do relate to each other. All water is one water.”

Nelson said she is concerned about shallow wells in certain areas of the state, which will be the first to lose water.

Usually when well interference complaints are filed with the DNR, the well is not dry. Instead, the well is likely out of water — meaning the groundwater level has lowered below the well’s pump. When this happens, a well driller would either lower the pump or drill a new well.

Nelson said that process is sped up during periods of drought.

“Because it's so dry, the farmers are having to irrigate more frequently than they usually would. And earlier in the season than they usually would. And because of that, they're using more water," she said. "And so the homeowners are probably using more water, too. So everybody's using more water when we are hoping they should be conserving more water. And so it's kind of drawing a lot of people's wells down.”

When there are conflicts between high-capacity users and domestic well owners, they can usually come to an agreement themselves. If not, the DNR will conduct an investigation.