Running on Empty

What happens when an aquifer can't keep up with the demand for clean water?

By Eric O'Link

'running on empty' illustration

Prairie Woods Estates springs out of former farm fields. The houses are new and the trees are small--but people's dreams are big; this is the community they have chosen to call home, to raise a family, or to spend their retirement. On the surface, Prairie Woods looks like many other central Minnesota housing developments.

On closer inspection, however, the differences become apparent: You would see that some houses have two, three, or even five wells drilled on their property.

Prairie Woods Estates, southeast of St. Cloud in Sherburne County's Haven Township, seems to be an ideal place to live in every way but one--the future quantity and quality of groundwater is in doubt.

Until recently, residents could do the laundry while washing the car and watering the grass. But as more houses were built, some newer houses experienced a decrease in the rate of water flow. Drilling wells for single homes sometimes took weeks. As residents of this neighborhood, my family was concerned too. The results of routine well tests showed that, while our well had adequate flow, our nitrate-nitrogen levels were near the state's health limit of 10 parts per million for drinkable water (ours were then 9 ppm, now 13 ppm); and this worried us.

In the spring of 2000, as a fifth addition of homes was being built, I was curious how my neighbors felt about the situation and distributed a survey as part of a high school science project. The results were telling: They suggested residents had concerns about the availability of water. Their experience has implications for homeowners living in fast-growing rural developments where water availability may be a concern.

"A lot of people are moving from the boundaries of municipalities to rural areas," said Jay Frischman, Department of Natural Resources hydrogeologist, who has been called to the area on water-supply complaints nearly every year since 1988. "The 'house next door' becomes 'the irrigated farmland next door.' Problems can quickly occur with both groundwater quantity and quality," he said. "The St. Cloud area is just one of several groundwater 'hot spots' around the state where water availability is an issue."

Five Additions

Prairie Woods was established in 1980. When developers drew up the plat maps, they planned for five additions, each with a varying number of single-family homes.

Prairie Woods currently has about 75 single-family homes. As lots from the fourth addition sold in the mid-1990s, problems with the development's primary aquifer became apparent. On some lots, well companies drilled well after well to find water. Out of desperation, some homeowners even resorted to a water diviner. Beverly Kampa was one of them.

"The $145 to have a water witch come out here was money well spent," she said. "Our neighbors dug $5,000 worth of dry holes, and we didn't want that to happen to us."

Many residents also noticed their wells weren't providing as much flow as they had in the past. "We were fine for the first four years," Kampa said. Then one day she turned on the bathtub faucet, and the water that came out was full of silt. As neighbors talked with one another, they began to suspect that either something was wrong with the aquifer beneath them, or too many wells were trying to pump from the same source.

In 1996 the developers asked the Sherburne County Planning and Zoning Commission to recommend approval to subdivide and sell the Prairie Woods Estates Fifth Addition, which comprised the large farm field in the middle of the development. Residents on both sides of the field, fearing the aquifer might already be running low, took their concerns to the county board.

illustration of a large water pump running empty, with many people underneath waiting for water.

Quality Concerns

Chief among the pollution problems: high nitrate levels in the shallower part of the aquifer. Well drillers often must keep drilling deeper even after they find adequate water because the shallower water is high in nitrates. Test wells from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's Ground Water Monitoring and Assessment Program show nitrate concentrations in some shallow wells in northwestern Sherburne County to be as high as 10 ppm. In Prairie Woods one well has nitrate as high as 17 ppm. Residents worried that further development could push nitrate levels even higher because it would add more septic systems.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Minnesota Department of Health have established the drinking water standard for nitrate (as nitrate-nitrogen) at 10 ppm. The primary health concern from nitrates is for infants under the age of 6 months. While drinking water that contains nitrate does not usually harm healthy adults, nitrate can inhibit the capacity of an infant's blood to carry oxygen, which can cause "blue baby syndrome."

Sources of nitrate in groundwater are both natural and human derived. They can include precipitation, application of commercial fertilizers to cropland and to residential yards, manure spreading, wastewater treatment systems, changing land uses, and decaying plant and animal waste. Any nitrate concentrations above 3 ppm may indicate the effect of human activities on the groundwater.

A report the developers prepared for the county planning commission in 1996 stated that "groundwater quality has shown no degradation" in the area. The report said that the groundwater supply was sufficient, though the water was at risk for nitrate pollution. David Meyers, chair of the planning commission (and my uncle), said the commission felt that the report did not adequately address the water situation in Prairie Woods Estates and, therefore, recommended that the county board deny the application for the fifth addition.

Though reassured by the recommendation of the planning commission, Prairie Woods homeowners circulated a petition opposing the subdivision and brought it to the county board meeting. They also brought a jar of murky water from the Kampas' well. After residents spoke out against the addition, the board decided to deny development.

Most Prairie Woods Estates residents thought the development issue was dead, but in 1998 the developers resubmitted their fifth addition plans to the planning commission. Again, the commission said that "water quality and quantity issues have not been resolved," and it again recommended to the board that permission to develop be denied. Once again, the county board turned down the fifth addition. The developers--who have declined to comment on this story despite numerous attempts to interview them--sued the county. Eventually, the case landed with the Minnesota Court of Appeals. To the surprise of Prairie Woods residents, the court decided in favor of the developers. The court ruled that the county board had disregarded the developer's groundwater report without providing scientific and legal evidence of its own that the proposed development wouldn't meet the requirements of the law. The development could go ahead.

"We didn't have scientific evidence that could prove a lack of water," said Kathleen Heaney, assistant county attorney. "The lack of scientific evidence in this case bothered the court."

Neighborhood Survey

After it was clear the fifth addition would be developed, I had the opportunity, through a school project, to create a survey to test residents' awareness and opinions on the subject of groundwater. I distributed a copy to every mailbox in Prairie Woods Estates.

Of the 30 who responded, 25 said that they had not been aware of the development's water problems before they built their house. Furthermore, 19 said if they had known about such problems, they would have looked at houses in other areas.

One respondent said, "It took us three tries before we found our current well, which is about 150 feet down and only has about 8 gallons per minute--water pressure is low and [we] can't run a hose and household appliance or bathtub/ shower at the same time."

Said another, "As someone with young children, the potential problems are alarming."

"My wife and I are rapidly approaching retirement age," said a resident. "Our home is a good part of our retirement. What value will a home have if you have no [water] or contaminated water?"

"Having drilled five wells to get adequate (or any) water, I am scared to death about my water supply," said another. "Without water my property is worth nothing."

Some residents said they felt they should have been informed about potential water problems. But, according to Meyers, developers have no responsibility if land they sell loses its water supply after the sale--those who already live on the property are stuck with the problem.

Finding Solutions

To find water, some Prairie Woods Estates homeowners, including the Kampas, have drilled wells only about 50 feet deep. This shallow groundwater has nitrate concentrations above drinking water standards, but it has shown no signs of depletion. The Kampas now use their shallow "sprinkling well" as a main water source, after spending $2,800 on a reverse-osmosis unit to remove nitrate concentrations in the water as high as 17 ppm.

Another solution might be to network several homes into one well, said hydrogeologist Frischman. "If you can find a spot where the aquifer is thicker, putting in a larger well and water system and then connecting it to 20 homes can be a better solution than 20 single wells tapping into the aquifer."

A third option, Frischman said, is a rural water system with one central water distributor (including well fields and a water treatment facility) to serve customers over a wide area. Such a distributor functions much like a municipal well, although it is in a rural setting and therefore not controlled by any city.

It's possible, Frischman said, that the aquifer under Prairie Woods Estates has been suffering from a localized drought during the past several years.

Buyer Beware

To avoid similar problems, prospective home buyers should try to learn as much as they can about an area's groundwater, Frischman said. Both the state and county departments of health have water records. Inquiring with local well drillers is also a good idea; they have firsthand experience with water quality and quantity of a specific area--particularly newer developments.

Frischman said that since 1974, the state health department has required a water-well log for every new well drilled. These well logs are a good source of information about a well's water supply.

If you're thinking about buying a home, you can take a water sample from the well for testing. County health departments often run these basic tests. "It's not very expensive to have the water tested for nitrate and bacteria," Frischman said, "and then you know what you're dealing with."

Finally, Frischman also recommended that homeowners with a well test their water periodically. In doing this, he said, you can track changes in the quality of your home's water supply, and take action if needed.

But what about homeowners whose wells run low only after other homes spring up all around? Recent cuts in state agency staffing have eliminated some groundwater monitoring by the PCA and DNR. Citizens who are concerned about a local environmental issue may need to hire a consultant to find scientific evidence to support their claims, according to assistant county attorney Heaney. Anecdotes, a lot of dry wells, and a jar of murky water are enough to convince most people, but without documentation and solid data a case may not hold up in court.

Groundwater is not an unlimited resource--in some cases, aquifers simply cannot handle the demand put upon them. Communal wells and similar systems can bail out developments where water scarcity is prevalent, but there might be a better solution: By doing careful research about an area before choosing to call it home, the savvy home buyer might be able to avoid water problems and protect his or her investment--and, in this case, peace of mind.

Eric O'Link is a first-year student at St. Cloud State University.

Who's Minding the Water Tap?

If homeowners encounter water problems, who should they call? Here are suggestions from the DNR Division of Waters.

  1. NOT ENOUGH WATER ON TAP?

    If you have well water, call a licensed water-well contractor. There may be problems with the well and equipment; there may be plugging of the well intake by silt or bacterial slime; or there may be a problem with pumping levels in the well due to overpumping in the area. Before you drill a well, DNR Waters and the Minnesota Geological Survey can often provide geologic information or information from drill hole logs that might indicate where to find suitable sources of water.

  2. SUSPECT POLLUTION OF WATER?

    Contact your county public health services or University of Minnesota Extension Service office for the name of a certified water-testing laboratory. Follow the lab's directions to take a sample for testing.

    If the water fails to meet health standards, contact a licensed water-well contractor to disinfect the well or drill at a different location or depth to find good quality water.

    The Minnesota Department of Health also maintains information about water-testing laboratories and compiles information about areas where groundwater has been contaminated and cannot be used for drinking water. That agency recommends testing private wells for nitrates every two to three years, or more often if previous sampling showed nitrates.

  3. CONCERNED ABOUT DEVELOPMENT?

    Contact the local unit of government with zoning authority. It makes decisions about land use and issues land-use permits.

    The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency establishes standards for septic systems. Counties often administer the rules.

    The PCA has done studies to examine the relationship of land use to groundwater quality in selected areas of the state. The agency may have information about the quality of water in wells in a particular area.

    DNR Information Center, 500 Lafayette Road, St. Paul, MN 55155-4040; 651-296-6157 or 1-888-646-6367.

    PCA, 520 Lafayette Road, St. Paul, MN 55155; www.pca.state.mn.us/water/groundwater; 651-296-6300 or 1-800-657-3864.

    Department of Health, 400 Golden Rule Building, 85 E. Seventh Place, St. Paul, MN 55101; www.health.state.mn.us; 651-215-5800.

    Minnesota Geological Survey, 2642 University Ave., St. Paul, MN 55114; www.geo.umn.edu/mgs; 612-627-4780.

Sarah Tufford
DNR groundwater administrator