DULUTH – Cindy Mackay thought her pump was broken when she turned on the tap on Halloween and no water came out.
But when the repairman came to her Rice Lake Township home, Mackay she found out even scarier news: There was no water in her well.
“I didn’t think it was possible to run out of water in the land of 10,000 lakes. We’ve never had any problem before in the 14 years I’ve lived here,” Mackay said, adding that at least four of her neighbors have had wells run dry in recent weeks.
A longstanding and worsening drought, now classified as “severe” or “extreme” across nearly all of Minnesota, has left some shallow or so-called “dug” wells running dry.
Much of the state is 6 inches short of rainfall since July; some areas are more than 9 inches short. And the National Drought Monitor now predicts that Minnesota’s drought will worsen in coming months.
The problem is more obvious in southwestern Minnesota, where summer crops were scorched and ponds have run dry. The drought is less visible in the Northland, where Lake Superior glistens just a few miles away and inland lakes are low but still hold plenty of water.
The drought in the Duluth area was also masked by the 10-inch rainfall in June, much of which ran off quickly and apparently offered little long-term help to the wetlands and ponds that help supply shallow wells.
“The shallow wells really don’t get their water from an underground aquifer like deep wells do. They depend mostly on surface water to recharge,” said Michael Convery, a hydrologist with the Minnesota Department of Health. “And a lot of them just aren’t recharging when it’s this dry. It’s not just in your area but several places across the state, people who depend on dug wells are finding problems.”
Homeowners on their own
The Department of Health has some jurisdiction over wells, licensing well-drillers and requiring testing for contaminants in new wells. But the agency really doesn’t have jurisdiction over water supplies for private wells in rural areas. Homeowners with wells are pretty much on their own to find water.
Convery said the shallower wells were a popular, less-expensive option in the 20th century in usually wet areas in the townships surrounding Duluth. Now, shallow wells are prohibited for new construction under state building codes because they aren’t as dependable as deeper, drilled wells.
The shallow wells are generally 25 feet deep or less; MacKay’s in Rice Lake Township was just 18 feet deep. During periods of ample rain and snow, the wells generally remain full.
Similar dry well problems were reported in the major droughts of 1976-77 and 1988, said Dennis Koepp of Denny’s Drilling in Saginaw.
“This happens every time we get one of these long, dry spells; we get busy. … People get tired of going without water, so they call us,” said Koepp, who also serves as president of the Minnesota Well Water Association.
Koepp said many dug wells have been replaced in recent years and that the shallow wells now make up only about 20 percent of rural wells in his service area around Duluth. He said most people know when they’re having problems when water pressure sputters before the well goes dry.
“The problem is that they wait until it stops pumping completely before they call, and we can’t always get there the next day,” Koepp said.
Craig Sunnarborg, owner of Sunnarborg Drilling in Esko, said most of the wells he drilled this fall before closing down for winter were drilled for people who had shallow wells go dry. He’s even seen some deeper “rock” wells go dry if they depended on water from the surface to fill the well.
“If we don’t get some good rain in the spring, we’re going to be even busier,” he said, noting he replaced dry, shallow wells in the Proctor, Hermantown and Martin Road areas outside Duluth.
Competition for water
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources monitors groundwater levels and will investigate whether outside factors, such as commercial water use, cause wells to run dry. In some cases, the DNR can track the problem to new water uses, such as irrigation of nearby farms or a new manufacturing plant, such as an ethanol plant, that uses huge amounts of groundwater.
Homeowners with dry wells who suspect a neighbor may be taking too much water can file a formal complaint, and the DNR has seen a few more of those complaints this year. If the complaint is upheld, the commercial water user can be required to pay for a new or expanded well for neighbors who lose their water supply.
The DNR did check large water users around Mackay’s home and found only one, Ridgeview Country Club, which uses enough water each summer to require a state permit.
“Sometimes it’s an explanation. … But in this case, the golf course didn’t use any more water this past year than they have before,” said Jay Frischman, DNR hydrogeologist.
Frischman said areas of rapid growth, where many new homes have been built, also can reach a point where “there are too many straws sucking out water” for the local water table to handle. But while there has been new housing in rural Duluth, a DNR review of new well applications shows “it doesn’t look there’s been any big increase lately that would cause a sudden problem.”
“Sometimes it comes down to climate. We’ve had some very intense dry spells around the state lately, and we’ve seen water tables drop significantly,” Frischman said.
‘We need some help’
Mackay and her two sons were without water for seven weeks “to the day,” she said, after her shallow well ran dry. The family hauled in bottled water to cook, drink and fill the toilet. They showered at the homes of friends and family. “It’s not sanitary. It’s not fun. You don’t realize how much you need water, just to keep the septic system running; you need water for everything,” MacKay said.
Mackay tried having her old well filled with trucked-in water, but the 3,000 gallons just disappeared. She eventually gave up on her shallow well and called in Graves Drilling from Proctor to dig a well 300 feet down into a groundwater aquifer. Even then, finding water wasn’t easy, and the company had to use high-pressure water to crack open the rock so water would flow.
In Northeastern Minnesota’s hard rock geology, true drilled wells often need to reach 200, 300, or even 400 feet down to find a true underground aquifer with ample water supply. In some cases, if you go much deeper, the water that enters the well is salty. And drilling a well isn’t a sure thing.
“You get some locations where they go all that way down and end up with a dry hole,” Convery noted.
In some cases, well-drillers use high-pressure water and sand to “frack” holes in the rock and create more space for water to fill in. It’s roughly the same technology used to squeeze oil out of some rock formations, such as in North Dakota, except that no chemicals are used in the water well effort.
Mackay is still hauling bottled water to drink because the water from the new well hasn’t been tested for contaminants yet. But at least their shower and toilet are back up and running.
Having a deep well drilled might be the only option for some homeowners, but it’s expensive, averaging $10,000 or more in some cases.
MacKay, like some other Northlanders with the same problem, doesn’t have the extra money on hand. She’s hoping to land a low-interest loan from the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency, but that’s not guaranteed. Even then, Mackay figures she’ll be paying about $200 per month for 10 years just for the well.
“This is happening to a lot of people,” she said. “And people who live out here can’t afford to pay for these wells.”
Mackay said the problem is widespread enough that some state or federal agency should be able to help with the cost of well-drilling. She notes that there’s help for all sorts of natural disasters, so why not dried-up wells spurred by drought?
“They have help for flood relief and farmers. … We need some help out here, too,” she said.