Water woes

WORTHINGTON -- Crusted soil laced with wide, deep cracks are a common sight where once water lapped against the shores of Lake Bella's northern and eastern basins.

Declining water levels
BRIAN KORTHALs/DAILY GLOBE Declining water levels are evident on Lake Bella, and forcing WPU to ask residents to stop watering lawns. People are also encouraged to conserve water by fixing leaking faucets and toilets.

WORTHINGTON -- Crusted soil laced with wide, deep cracks are a common sight where once water lapped against the shores of Lake Bella's northern and eastern basins.

All summer long, the water levels in the man-made lake have continued to fall, to the concern of Worthington Public Utilities officials.

Seven of the 12 wells that supply Worthington residents, businesses and industry with water are located in the Lake Bella wellhead. They are the largest of the city's wells -- each able to pump about 500 gallons of water per minute -- but the continuing drought is putting the future water supply in jeopardy.

"We've been watching awful close all summer long," said Scott Hain, Worthington Public Utilities manager.

Well No. 26, located near 330th Street and Paul Avenue, is used to gauge the health of the entire Lake Bella wellhead. Though Hain said its water level hasn't yet reached the critical stage, it may not take long without rain.


"We have a water emergency preparedness plan that was put in place many years ago," he explained. "We pretty much set the trigger for declaring a water emergency when the static level of Well 26 hits 42 feet. As of a week ago, we were right at 31 feet."

After seeing water levels decline two to four inches per week for much of the summer, Hain said levels began dropping a foot a week in mid-September.

Now, with a weather forecast touting no rain through at least the next week, that decline is expected to continue.

"If we don't get any precipitation and we sit around and wait until we hit 42 feet ... it isn't going to take too long," Hain said.

Once the water level dips to 42 feet below the surface, a total watering ban would be triggered.

"We're not at ... critical stage, but at 31 feet and no precip in the forecast -- and the fact that we're there so late in the year with not a lot of time left before there just isn't going to be any recharge until spring -- that tends to make us a little nervous."

Steady decline

The summer drought added insult to injury for a well field that never fully recovered from the dry spell that began in July 2011. Hain said the wells had declining static water levels from July 2011 through March 2012, followed by a slow recovery that was helped by nearly nine inches of rain in May. Since June 1, however, the levels have again declined every week.


That decline led to watering restrictions in the community, and Hain said residents are still encouraged to not overwater lawns and abide by the odd-even watering ordinance.

Despite the restrictions, Hain said there was more water usage this summer than any other in the last six years. Typical usage for the city is 3 million gallons per day, but for several days this summer, that usage was more than 4 million gallons.

"Through the month of August, residential water sales volumes increased 8.4 percent over the same period last year," Hain said.

Commercial water usage was up 7.5 percent, and industrial volume increased 2.5 percent. Daily and weekly water demand records were set all summer long.

"We have some commercial businesses who have expanded operations and are doing quite a bit more production, but there was an awful lot of commercial irrigation and lawn watering, particularly in the month of July," Hain said.

JBS, the city's largest water user, is "very conscientious about" the water supply, Hain said, adding that the pork processing facility's water use per head is "well below the industry standard."

Lawn watering, he viewed, is one of the biggest culprits of the excess water used this summer.

When the Water and Light Commission meets Monday morning, Hain anticipates it may initiate an all-out ban on lawn watering.


"Really, you get into October and things are going to start going dormant anyway," he said.

A ban would most affect those who wanted to establish fall turf or plant new trees yet this fall, and Hain is among them.

"I haven't laid a bit of seed down or done anything," he said of his own lawn seeding project that's been waiting since June.

The closer it gets to winter, the shorter the window to get any kind of recharge for the wells, Hain added.

"By mid-December, those well statics aren't going to do anything but decline for the rest of the winter until we get into about mid-March," he said.

Tapping a new source

For years and years, Hain said the city of Worthington searched for more water sources in the area, spending time and money to no avail. The seven wells established at Lake Bella nearly 50 years ago "is what there is," he said. The five other wells in the system include the Malcolm well field (two wells near Smith Lake and a third near the city's puppy park off First Avenue Southwest), and two small wells (100 to 125 gallons per minute) near the city's water treatment plant.

Now, not long after Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water extended line from Osceola County, Iowa, through a large share of Nobles County, Hain said work is ongoing with that organization to get an interconnect to be able to access water.


"I think we will be able to purchase some water from Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water -- they have some excess capacity right now," Hain said.

Even with the water source, Hain said it isn't enough to take the place of Worthington's existing water supply. It's also going to be considerably more expensive to buy water from LPRW, and if it gets to the point when water has to be purchased, that cost will undoubtedly be passed on to customers.

Hain said the pipeline route has already been surveyed, the easements have been secured for the meter house and the engineers are just finishing up the plans. The next step is to get quotes for materials and construction. He hopes the interconnect will be completed by late December.

"On the flip side, if all of a sudden it starts raining next week and rains two inches a week for the next three months and the guys can't get construction done, I'll be happy then, too, because then it won't be nearly as critical as it is right now," he said with a laugh.

Both Worthington and LPRW are members of the Lewis and Clark Regional Water System. The first nine communities were able to access water from the system on Aug. 1, which Hain said couldn't have come at a better time because of the drought.

"For us, with LPRW, it isn't going to be near the normal amount of water we sell in a day, but when push comes to shove, it's wet and it's better than nothing."

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


Scott Hain
BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE Worthington Public Utilities Manager Scott Hain stands on the crusted and cracked lake bed of Lake Bella earlier this week. The continuing drought has created cause for concern that the city's water supply could run dangerously low.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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