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Thirsting for water

WORTHINGTON — As if Worthington’s need for water wasn’t dire enough with the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System hinging on the generosity of state legislators and a bonding bill, the state’s environmental agency is now threatening to shut down a Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water (LPRW) wellfield that could have direct ramifications to Worthington’s water supply.

Mark Johnson, LPRW CEO, said the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has told the organization the level of nitrates in its discharge waters at Holland are too high. If the problem isn’t corrected, LPRW may have to shut down the well.

If that happens, Johnson said the 750,000 gallons of water purchased daily from Osceola Rural Water — which help to meet the city of Worthington’s needs — will have to be piped up to Holland to serve customers there.

“Our obligation is to customers that we have in the Holland area,” Johnson said. “We just tied into Worthington on an emergency basis. Their crisis has gotten greater and, believe me, it’s not that I want to turn Worthington off. They have customers to serve, too.”

The Holland wellfield supplies up to 1 million gallons of water per day. Since 1999, LPRW has used a reverse osmosis system to treat nitrates in the water, with the residual solids discharged into a stream in an agricultural area.

The MPCA in 2012 notified LPRW — prior to Johnson becoming CEO of the water system — that it couldn’t discharge the high concentration of salts into an ag drainage system. In March, the MPCA sent LPRW a notice of violation.

Between the first notice and the notice of violation, LPRW has researched solutions to treating the water. The latest idea is a BIOTTTA system that biologically treats the nitrates by converting them to a gas that escapes into the atmosphere as a form of nitrogen. The drawback — the system’s cost is estimated at $3 million to $3.5 million.

“That’s a lot of money to replace a process that’s been working,” Johnson said. “We’re letting environment trump people in a way. I hate to have to say that, but that’s the way I feel about it.

“People need drinking water — safe drinking water — and that’s what we’re trying to provide them.”

Johnson said he’s asked the MPCA about funding assistance for a treatment program, but nothing has been offered thus far.

“I feel it’s something they should be helping us find a way (to fund) because it’s just something that we can’t afford,” he said.

Johnson and LPRW are now in a 180-day waiting game with the MPCA to learn if the BIOTTTA system will be acceptable to the state agency. If MPCA doesn’t approve the plans, Johnson said LPRW back at square one.

Johnson raised the MPCA issues during a meeting last Thursday in St. Paul that included Worthington Mayor Alan Oberloh, Luverne Mayor Pat Baustian, state bonding committee chairmen and staff from Gov. Mark Dayton’s office. Sen. Bill Weber (R-Luverne) was also in attendance.

“We do need to do something to make sure that if, need be, we get some extensions for Lincoln-Pipestone,” Weber said Monday. “We do need to visit with MPCA, and we just cannot let them start enforcing (regulations on the Holland wellfield) or we’ve created the worst of both worlds for Worthington at this point.”

Certainly, the situation with the MPCA makes the case for state bonding money for Lewis & Clark, and Weber said it will be used as a negotiating tool for full funding.

Worthington Public Utilities General Manager Scott Hain is holding out hope the MPCA enforcement will be held off and that Lewis & Clark will advance.

“Water is so doggone hard to come by the way it is — public water supply — I would certainly hope that calmer heads prevail when looking at anything that would potentially limit that source further,” Hain said. “Certainly it would be very concerning for us if all of a sudden we couldn’t buy water from Lincoln-Pipestone anymore. That would be a bad deal.”

In 2013, Hain said 19 percent of the city of Worthington’s total water usage came from LPRW.

“It would be tough to go from 19 percent down to zero under the current weather and well level conditions,” he added.

Without knowing the timeframe MPCA has for enforcing the compliance issues with the Holland well field, Hain said the simple fact remains that infrastructure — whether to solve the discharge problems at the Holland well field or to construct Lewis & Clark’s pipeline to Worthington — isn’t going to happen in a month.

“Regardless of what happens with Holland, we need Lewis & Clark to get here — there’s no ifs, ands or buts,” Hain said. “I think we’ve demonstrated adequately that there’s additional need for water in southwest Minnesota.”

In the Senate, Weber continues to push for Lewis & Clark funding. The House and Senate bonding committees continue to hammer out a plan, and Weber said that as of Monday morning, the bonding bill was not on the calendar for Senate action.

“That means they don’t have it put together yet,” Weber said.

Meanwhile, Johnson said if the MPCA approves LPRW’s plans for a BIOTTTA system, the next step would be to secure funding and notify the manufacturer to design a system.

“We’d have to pay 90 percent up front and we’d be installing it, at the earliest, in the fall of 2015,” he said.

That would mean, if everything is approved, the water from the Holland well field could be running by the spring of 2016.

“I hope we can look at this and say, ‘What’s more reasonable?’ instead of saying we’ve got to meet strict compliance that comes from somewhere else,” Johnson said. “What we’re discharging is really not adversely affecting the environment.”

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at The Farm Bleat

(507) 376-7330