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Brian Korthals/Daily Globe TOP: Peterson Slough south of Worthington hasn't seen standing water for about eight weeks. The slough is located just south of Lake Ocheda, about a mile and a half north of Lake Bella.

Water woes continue

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news Worthington, 56187
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

WORTHINGTON -- Pressure and bacteria testing was under way Wednesday on the new Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water line that will be used to supplement Worthington's water supply as a result of the ongoing drought.

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Worthington Public Utilities (WPU) Manager Scott Hain said with the interconnection nearly complete, the city should be able to begin purchasing water by the end of this week or early next week.

"They feel they'll be able to provide water for us until at least the foreseeable future," Hain said of LPRW. "We're very grateful that they did this expansion. ... It couldn't have come at a better time."

Hain, who monitors the levels at the Lake Bella well field every Friday, said he doesn't yet know what impact -- if any -- last weekend's half-inch rain made on the wells. Up to this point, he is recording a weekly six-inch drop in water levels.

With the new purchase agreement with LPRW for water, Hain said city utility customers may see a new charge on their water bills as early as January.

"The (WPU Water and Light) Commission implemented a purchase water adjustment charge at its last meeting," Hain said, adding that customers will be billed based on the total water used.

"Our purchases from Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water and the cost are expected to vary from month to month," he said.

Rather than guess what will be spent and incorporate that into a retail water rate, Hain said the amount of water purchased will be divided by the number of billable units to come up with a new "purchased water adjustment" rate that customers will see on their utility bill.

"It's a charge to pay exactly what we pay to purchase the water," Hain said.

While the purchased water from LPRW will ease some of the pressure on the Lake Bella well field, the WPU board continues to discuss options for preserving the city's water supply. Watering restrictions were implemented a month ago, and while there was talk of potentially closing car washes, Hain said the board isn't prepared to implement a ban on car washing at this time.

Piping water from Lake Ocheda to Bella

In recent days, talks have shifted to the ability to move water from Lake Ocheda to Lake Bella. While Hain hasn't had a chance to present information to the WPU board yet, he met with members of the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District for the first time last week to discuss an option to pipe water from the 1,700-acre Lake Ocheda south toward the Bella well field. The group had further discussions with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources during a meeting Tuesday.

"This isn't the first time that we've run into this drought situation, and it probably won't be the last time," Hain said. "If there is a way to do something on a more permanent basis ... it wouldn't be a bad idea to set ourselves up to be able to do that."

Years ago, during a similar drought, Hain said the city pumped water from one Lake Bella basin across the road and into the wellhead area.

Taking those steps this time around, moving water instead from Lake Ocheda -- even on a temporary basis -- would require the city to "demonstrate a real water emergency" to the DNR, Hain said.

"Then, once the emergency passes, all that infrastructure needs to be removed," he added. "There's going to be a significant expense we would incur to have (the piping) on a temporary basis. Why not pay a little more and have it be a permanent basis?"

Installation of permanent piping would likely be a long process. First, an engineer would have to create a plan for moving water from Lake Ocheda south, and then a management plan would have to be adopted. The plan would outline when the pipe could be opened to send water to the Bella well field.

"When conditions get like they are now, it kind of reminds everyone of the problems we had 10 years ago, 20 years ago," Hain said. "You get into the wet years ... and people tend to forget."

Hain said the DNR has outlined a path for a temporary solution if conditions don't improve and the city "gets into a real pinch."

While acknowledging that many questions have yet to be answered, from the design of a permanent piping system to the cost and who's going to pay for it, the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District on Tuesday unanimously approved entering into discussions regarding movement of water from Lake Ocheda to Lake Bella to recharge the well field. Any subsequent action would need to be approved by a majority of the landowners surrounding Lake Ocheda.

"This winter, the participation and education of the landowners can be done," said OOWD board member Rolf Mahlberg. "We recognize that we need endorsement in our management plan. It doesn't matter if (the drawdown) is to improve the well field or enhance lake quality -- it's going to need landowner approval."

Les Johnson, OOWD board chairman, said taking two to six inches of surface volume from Lake Ocheda would provide the water needed at the Lake Bella well field.

"Without impacting Ocheda greatly, you could impact Bella and the well field very significantly," Johnson said, adding that now, when water levels are low, would be an opportune time to complete a structure.

OOWD Administrator Dan Livdahl said he didn't see any way the project could happen this winter.

"The hope is this new connection with Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water will get us through this winter," Livdahl said. "Hopefully the lakes will fill up in the spring and this crisis will be over. There will be another crisis in the future."

Hain shared a similar sentiment.

"Hopefully we see some real improvement with this rain we had Saturday night and hopefully we'll see more rain before things freeze up," he said.

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

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