Western Minnesota's Chippewa County weighing benefits of high-volume users against groundwater supply

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— Apprehension by some rural landowners about potential impacts on their domestic wells from the arrival of high-volume water users brought a Department of Natural Resources hydrologist to the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners meeting on March 8.

Anne Hall, district appropriations hydrologist in Hutchinson, told landowners at the meeting that state law gives priority to domestic water users if a groundwater supply is stressed.

She also advised landowners that it is important to document the current water levels in their wells. The responsibility is on domestic well owners to initiate action if they experience well interference problems.

If a well interference complaint is found to be valid, a high-capacity user or users may be responsible for all or part of the costs to restore the water supply, Hall said.

She said well owners experiencing problems should first contact a licensed well driller to inspect their well. Many reported issues are due to problems with the domestic well itself.

Hall encouraged any affected well owners with well interference problems to contact the high-volume user to negotiate a resolution, although they are not required to do so.

Affected users can also file a complaint with the DNR. The agency will not investigate until a complaint is filed. It must be submitted with the assistance of a licensed well driller, she said.

Concerns about possible effects on water quality are more the issue in Chippewa County than quantity.

Commissioner Candice Jaenisch told Hall that she had received some calls from well owners concerned about potential impacts on the quality of their water.

Test pumping conducted about two years ago as part of the permit process for the Grace Dairy planned in Chippewa County triggered some of the apprehension. Some residents reported a need to change filters or screens more often due to suspended solids.

By all accounts, the dairy has responded to all concerns from neighboring residents. The dairy has been permitted and is expected to be constructed this year. It expects to use an estimated 120 million gallons of water in a year, according to the environmental assessment worksheet for the project.

Hall said the DNR is focused primarily on water quantity issues.

"We're only looking at water quantity. We do go somewhat into the realm of water quality. Decreasing water quality may be an indication that there is interference, but not necessarily," she said.

Responsibility for water quality issues belongs more so to the departments of Health and Agriculture and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, according to Hall.

The commissioners said they are looking at their feedlot and land use ordinances with an eye to preventing problems down the road.

"What this body is concerned about is long term," Commissioner Dave Lieser told Hall. The county does not want to approve permits for high-volume users if they cause water problems 10 or 20 years down the road.

Sustainability is important to the DNR when it is assessing whether to award a water appropriation permit to a high-volume user, according to Hall. She said the assessment process can include an analysis of usage impacts over 20 years' time.

Livestock producers in the county place an emphasis on water quality as well, Jeffrey Lopez, a livestock producer and consultant and former commissioner, told the gathering. He pointed out that water quality is especially critical for young and lactating animals.

Chippewa County does not have an extensive analysis of its groundwater resources. It is participating with the DNR to complete a geological atlas of the county, which will provide more information.

Hall said what is known at this point is that there are relatively good groundwater sources in the northern part of Chippewa County. There are areas with limited resources in the southeastern and eastern portions of the county.

Scott Williams, land and resource manager for the county, said his office is urging domestic well owners who have concerns to document the condition of their well, the water level and the water chemistry.