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Nitrate levels threaten to close additional wells

Dan Pachel mixes concrete for construction of the city's new well house, in the background. The new well should be on line by July. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Park Rapids' geriatric system of shallow wells could topple like dominos in the coming years, much like senior citizens on wobbly walkers.

Nitrate levels continue to creep to dangerous levels in two more wells.

Tuesday, Park Rapids City Council members, less than a year after taking a well out of service, learned a second one has failed a quarterly test of nitrate levels. A third well has higher-than desired nitrate levels.

And like the parent of a poorly performing student, the city is awaiting official confirmation of that deficiency.

To use the school analogy, will the city have to expel the offending wells or operate them under probation?

No. 7 has failed its test outright. Well 6, if you gave it a grade, scored a D and seems to be edging toward a D minus. If Well 7 must eventually be sealed, Park Rapids residents could face a water shortage and watering bans in what has become a bone-dry spring, city officials say.

"This is all unofficial," said public works superintendent Scott Burlingame. The Health Department "will send us a notice of violation. Along with that they will send us a test kit for a second sample. If that comes back over the 10.4 parts per million then they will require us to take the well offline."

Well 7 had test results of 11 parts per million.

"10.4 is the maximum contaminant level," Burlingame said. "Anything over and above that is unacceptable.

"We don't even have the notice of violation," he added. "It all starts from there."

Failing for years

"We have known for a number of years now the nitrate levels are rising in our water and the big suspect is the agricultural pivots just west of town," said city administrator Bill Smith. "There's six of them that lie directly over our well head area.

"They're irrigators," Smith explained. "There's six irrigated agricultural areas owned by Becker Farms and RDO. They own those and operate them."

Longtime practices of adding nitrogen fertilizer to agricultural fields south of Park Rapids has resulted in the accumulation of nitrates in the water system. It is not solely attributable to the larger commercial farms.

"The problem is that it takes about 10 years from once that nitrate is applied on the ground for it to filter down into the water table and then to migrate over to where our wells are," Smith said.

"The things we're doing today to help things, we won't see the results of for seven, eight, nine years."

But Smith and Burlingame say RDO and Becker Farms now have representatives on a well committee. Both men praise the growers for taking a proactive stance in dealing with the nitrate issue.

"RDO and Becker have changed their practices," Smith said. "They have chosen a different potato that requires less nitrates and they're looking at their application methods, the type of fertilizer they put down so the producers have worked to reduce what's going into the groundwater."

"They're aware of what's going on," Burlingame said. "They're doing everything they can and still produce a crop but we know it's been coming for a long time. It's just spiked here in the last couple years on two of our wells."

New farming practices

RDO's new spud is called "Alturas."

"Its growth uses considerably less nitrogen than the conventional ones (potatoes), said Lamb Weston RDO agronomist Dale Steevens.

"We're using a material called ESN, for environmentally safe nitrogen," he said. "It has a polymer coating on it that makes it a slow release. In the event you get a huge rainfall you don't have the potential for leaching. It releases over time."

Steevens said the company has been looking at its farming practices for many years.

"We've been playing with it (ESN) for about five years and this would be the third season the total crop is on that," he said.

Growing old

Burlingame said agricultural uses are only part of the well problems plaguing the city.

"Our wells and well houses are beyond their life anyway," Burlingame said. "Regardless of whether they're doing any farming out there or not we'd be doing this anyhow.

"Of course that's been our long term plan," he said. "Obviously we're building a well house, putting in a new well. It's not just area farmers. We have shallow wells, which are susceptible to any kind of contamination because they're so shallow."

Elsner Drilling found deep water at 270 feet drilling a test well. The well, south of the high school, sits near wells 5 and 6. No. 6 has also seen its nitrate levels rise to unacceptable, but still legal, levels.

That well measured 9 parts per million.

"The nitrate levels in this well have been trending upward consistently over the past 7+ years," wrote Luke Stuewe, water quality advisor for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Elsner drilled a permanent well with a bigger pipe. Construction of the well house is under way. City crews are awaiting the electrical components that will operate the well. Smith said Well 8 should be operational by July, about the same time Well 4 is permanently sealed off.

But "Well 8 will not be sufficient to supply the city," Burlingame told the council. He said the more a well pumps, the higher the nitrate levels rise. Shutting down Well 4 last year put additional pressure on Well 7.

"Your back is against the wall," warned Stuewe. While "groundwater moves slow, you have a geologic condition that is not forgiving."

Well 8, when online, will blend water from Wells 5 and 6 before distribution into the town's water supply. And although the water found below Well 8 is nitrate-free, a trace of iron has been detected that city officials hope won't rise.

"Longterm plans for any community anywhere is to have a secure source of water. Well, a secure source of water is a deep well and that's what we put in," Burlingame said. "We just may have to put another one in sooner than what we've planned."

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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