Aquifers - A Precious Resource Being Abused

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Aquifers - A Precious Resource Being Abused

by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News


 “Once you have abundance in your head you kind of feel that you can consume it endlessly.”

DNR Region 4 Groundwater
 Planner Tim Gieseke

It’s hard to believe in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” that we don’t have enough water. That we could forever turn on the tap and clean, abundant water would always come gushing out was a given. No longer.

“We are in a situation where we know we have a limited resource on a downward trend,” Area Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Hydrologist Ethan Jenzen told the Swift County Board of Commissioners last month. He was speaking of the aquifers below central Swift County.

Jenzen and DNR Region 4 Groundwater Planner Tim Gieseke met with the county as the agency promotes its Community-based Aquifer Management Partnership. Monday night Gieseke met with the Benson City Council.

“We really wanted to engage the community, not just the municipal supply, not just the irrigators,” Jenzen told commissioners. “We wanted to work with everybody to really take a hard look at who is using water and how much do we really need.”

There are four aquifers stacked on top of each other below the Benson area ranging from those near the surface to one sitting about 280 to 330 feet down. Below that depth you run into   bedrock incapable of absorbing and storing water.

The Benson Middle Aquifer is the big one of the four. The City of Benson, farm irrigators, the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company and Benson Power all draw water from it. “It is a relatively robust aquifer, but there is a lot of use,” Gieseke said. By “a lot,” Gieseke means 85 percent of the water consumed in the area.

But our biggest “tank” of water is being drained. Over the last 23 years, there has been just over a half a foot decline per year in the Benson Middle Aquifer. The rate of decline and the increasing demands on the aquifer are enough of a concern for the DNR that the Benson area was one of the communities at the top of its list for raising awareness of just how vulnerable our groundwater is to overuse.

Aquifers that took thousands of years to fill are being drained in just a few decades. The rate at which rain and snowmelt can seep into the ground, sinking down into the aquifers, is far too slow to keep up with the demand for water as more and more farm irrigators, industries that are heavy users of water such as power plants and ag processing plants, and immense and concentrated livestock operations draw from it.

We can’t forget another reason aquifer replenishment can’t keep up – drainage. Hundreds of small wetlands that once dotted the landscape of the area have been drained to create more acres of tillable land. Rather than having those wetlands hold water that eventually sinks slowly downward, we rush it off the land into drainage ditches and into rivers that carry it quickly away. Those small sloughs and wetlands also acted as water purifiers.

The impact of a groundwater as a limited resource has far-reaching implications for economic development, for population growth in rural Minnesota, for recreational pursuits, for crop agricultural and livestock operations. But as with so many of our resources the real impact of previous generations’ overuse and abuse will be felt and paid for by future generations.

Imagine the DNR eventually denying a permit for an industry that would bring 200 good paying jobs to the community because its water demand for production was too big. Imagine limitations being put on new farm irrigators and those that are already in the ground being limited on how much they can draw. We aren’t there today, but that day is coming based on the current and future demands.

 “We haven’t got to a stage where we are out (of groundwater) yet,” Jenzen told commissioners. “A stage where everyone is needing water and no one has it. We are not California where they literally had to reduce their water use by 35 percent everywhere.” We aren’t in the emergency room yet, but we are in the “urgency room,” he said.

Other areas of the country where aquifers are being drained are in the emergency room. Where wells are running dry, local citizens are paying very dearly for their water with the help of all taxpayers.

The City of Worthington in southern Minnesota buys 500,000 gallons of water every day from the Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water System.  It is one of 15 communities in southwest Minnesota, northwest Iowa, and eastern South Dakota, that will soon be relying on the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System to bring them water. It will draw 45 million gallons of water a day from aquifers along the Missouri River with plans to expand to 60 million gallons a day. State and federal tax dollars are helping pay for the $585 million project.

“The sprawling Ogallala Aquifer in the Great Plains provides freshwater for roughly one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cattle and cotton in the United States. But key parts of the underwater aquifer are being depleted faster than they can be recharged by rain,” Brad Plumer wrote in The Washington Post in 2013.

“That raises a question: How long before those areas in decline run out of groundwater for farming?”  It took more than 6,000 years for glacial melt to fill the aquifer, but it could dry up for business and agriculture in as little as 50 years.

Benson’s aquifer assessment was conducted before it was known that Benson Power, LLC, was likely to be shutting down. It draws about 40 million gallons of water a year. That gives us room still to pitch Benson as a site for new industry, but we all still need to be more conscious of how we use water. However, a single 160-acre irrigator can draw 43 million gallons a year with more permits requested all the time.

 “The more people who use water who are aware of the issues the easier it is to see the decisions that have to be made on a societal level,” Jenzen said. Those could end up being some tough decisions that limit use.

Abundance has nearly always led to abuse of a resource. Only when its limitations and potential scarcity become real do some wake up to the need to use it wisely. Unfortunately, for many only regulation, much higher costs and forced limits curtail abuse.

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