Waiting … and waiting … for rain

Farm Forum

WORTHINGTON, Minn. – Crop farmers are almost giddy at the prospect of getting some much needed moisture, but they aren’t the only ones crossing their fingers and watching the skies.

The Worthington, Minn., water supply from the Lake Bella well fields south of town continues to decline, and although the loss isn’t as significant as it was last fall, when static levels on Well 26 were dropping about a foot a week, they continue to drop nonetheless.

“When we get to this time of the year, it doesn’t matter how much snow we get, our wells aren’t going to recharge. The ground is frozen and nothing is getting through,” said Worthington Public Utilities General Manager Scott Hain. However, any moisture that comes will soon melt with the coming of spring, and that water will ultimately make its way to the well field.

Hain said static levels are now dropping about six inches per week on Well 26. The slower decline in water levels is due primarily to last November’s hook-up into the Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water (LPRW) system. That system pulls water from Osceola County (Iowa) Rural Water.

Since November, Worthington Public Utilities has purchased 20 percent to 25 percent of its water from LPRW per month.

“That certainly has helped,” Hain said. “We’re pulling less water out of our well field.”

Dennis Healy, LPRW chief executive officer, said on March 8 that while there are water supply concerns in other parts of the LPRW territory, the system traversing through Nobles County has ample supply.

Soon, the LPRW will make a request to the Nobles County Planning Commission to install a second meter station in Nobles County, this time on the west side of Worthington. The first meter station was installed last fall on the city’s east side.

“All along, in our conversations with Scott (Hain), we anticipated one on the east side and one on the west side,” Healy said of the meter station. Once completed, there’s potential for more water to be accessed by the city of Worthington.

The second meter station will also help ensure deliverability of water if something were to happen to the first meter station.

“Right now we’re taking everything we can get on the east side,” Hain explained. “With Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water, there is no guaranteed rate of delivery. It’s on an as-needed basis. At some point, if the tables turn and if we have excess capacity, we can sell water to them through those same meter houses.”

More hook-ups

As demand for water continues to increase, Healy has been in discussion with Osceola County Rural Water about the potential to purchase more water than initially specified in the contract.

While the frozen ground has essentially stopped LPRW from completing new hook-ups during the winter months, Healy said it has continued to get calls and is scheduling work for this spring and summer. One of its largest projects, if approved, will be adding the city of Round Lake to the LPRW system.

“It appears they’re going to hook up to the system this spring or summer,” Healy said.

Brewster hooked into the LPRW system when the expansion was constructed a couple of years ago, and Reading and Leota have been hooked into the LPRW lines for several years, he added.

Just as LPRW plans to add more people onto its system, Hain is hoping the Worthington well field will recharge quickly as the snow begins to melt.

“Right now, we’re going to hit our trigger level … when Well 26 is at 42 feet,” he said. “The well is now at 40 feet, 2 inches, as of (March 1.)”

“Forty-two feet is kind of a scary point.”

Well 26 hasn’t been that low at this time of the year since 2001. Back then, water levels rebounded quickly in just a few weeks.

“The one thing about our water supply, it can recharge very rapidly when conditions are right,” Hain said.

At this point, those watching the water supply can only wait to see what happens.

There’s potential that with the ice cap covering the soil in parts of the region, a quick snow melt could mean the moisture will run off instead of soaking into the soil. If that happens, the waterways, streams and lakes will benefit.

“I sympathize with the dry soil conditions the farmers are going to face, but it may not be the worst thing for our water bodies to fill up again,” Hain said. “(The water) will work its way down to Bella.”

Lewis & Clark

As communities throughout southwest Minnesota look for solutions to a declining water supply, hopes of the Lewis and Clark water system expansion reaching the area soon appear all but dashed.

Recently, both Healy and Hain were part of an “intermediate range planning discussion” with Lewis and Clark board members. There, they brainstormed ideas to move the regional water project forward despite a freeze in federal funding over the next few budget cycles.

The earmark ban, which included Lewis and Clark, was extended for two more years without exception — a surprise move by Republicans, Hain said. That means there will be no additional funding for the regional water project through fiscal year 2015.

Now, Hain said the board is questioning whether it wants to be in “wait and see mode” for a few more years or look at alternative financing sources.

“All kinds of ideas were kicked around, from commercial borrowing to trying to access … low-interest loans,” he said. “Any interest expense the members would take on through alternative financing would be additional expense to those members.

“From my perspective, one very positive outcome of that board meeting was that no, we can’t sit and wait indefinitely — we’ve got to figure out a way to keep this moving forward,” Hain said, adding that in the long run, the additional interest costs may be worth it.

“Lewis and Clark would be a long-range answer for a lot of communities in the area — us and Worthington, Luverne, Rock County Rural Water,” added Healy. “We just need to get it done.”