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Associated Press, Published March 18 2013

Drought highlights water woes across Minnesota

ST. PAUL — Rural Minnesota residents and state regulators are facing challenges in keeping up with demand for water as they deal with a prolonged drought, a thirst for job-creating growth and the prospect that current water practices in some areas are unsustainable.

The situation is especially stark the farther south and west one travels in the state, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported Monday. And it could portend changes for the Twin Cities metro area, from water rationing to taxpayer-funded efforts to secure additional water.

While the drought isn't the only reason Minnesota's water woes are spreading, experts agree it's shining a spotlight on them. Groundwater now accounts for 75 percent of Minnesotans' drinking water, and its use is increasing.

The dire situation rolled into the south-central Minnesota city of Fairmont like a dust cloud last September. Told by state regulators they had little choice, the City Council approved emergency restrictions including lawn watering and car washing bans.

Fairmont gets its water from Budd Lake. In 2011, the city broke ground on a $28 million treatment plant to increase its capacity 20 percent. During the permitting process, the Department of Natural Resources realized the city had been drawing more water than its permit allowed — for decades.

"But we have this new plant, and we want our community to be able to grow," said Troy Nemmers, the city public works director.

Now Fairmont plans to reopen a well to an aquifer some 300 feet below ground. The well was drilled in 1978 as an emergency backup. Its water is extremely hard and will require three times more treatment than Budd Lake water. That will cost the city of fewer than 11,000 people up to $300,000 more annually, Nemmers said.

Fairmont isn't alone.

The southwestern city of Marshall hopes to tap an aquifer 23 miles from town to supplement the two declining aquifers it now uses. The pipeline to carry that water will cost $16 million to $18 million, said Brad Roos, general manager of Marshall Municipal Utilities. The community's annual water budget is currently $5 million.

"There are two facts of life here in Marshall: We're a wet industry town, and finding water is extremely challenging," Roos said.

Marshall has engaged the area's largest employers, including Schwan's Food Service and Archer Daniels Midland, to plan consumption cuts if needed, he said.

In the southwestern city of Worthington, which turned down an ethanol plant several years ago because the city couldn't meet its water demands, the reservoir designed to replenish the city's wells nearly dried up last fall.

Worthington now is buying 25 percent of its water from Iowa. Its long-term hope is to hook into the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System, a decades-old plan to provide water from the Missouri River basin for 300,000 people in Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota. But the $462 million project has yet to extend to Worthington and is behind schedule.

To get a better handle on the long-term health of Minnesota's underground water supplies, the DNR has asked the Legislature for $9.5 million to roughly double the number of its observation wells to about 1,600. But DNR officials say they really need close to 7,000, which would cost $3.2 million a year for the next 30 years by one estimate.

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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.