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Amid drought, city eyes options

November 29, 2012
Meg Alexander - Staff Writer , Fairmont Sentinel

FAIRMONT - The city of Fairmont is planning for worst-case scenarios should the drought continue, particularly since the state is restricting how much can be drawn from Fairmont's lakes - the source of Fairmont's treated water.

At the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the city's application to withdraw more water from an emergency well is waiting approval after recent tests to see how much water the well could potentially supply.

"The results appear promising," said Troy Nemmers, Fairmont public works director.

The underground source would be treated and used in addition to the surface water Fairmont residents and businesses rely on.

The DNR currently allows Fairmont to use 30 million gallons of well water per year, but that might not be enough to offset further surface water restrictions if the drought worsens. Right now, residents are banned from "non-essential" water use, but the next step is to restrict business and industrial water users - a step the city is obviously eager to avoid.

The well was dug in the late 1970s in a situation such as this. The water elevation at that time, as measured at the George Lake Dam, was 46.3 feet. Right now, the lake elevation is at about 49.5. "Normal," according to Nemmers, is about 51.4 feet.

"The most recent time it was down to this level was in 1990," he said, which was following the drought of 1988-89.

The need to use groundwater is sure to dredge up the debate over which water source the city should have chosen for its new water treatment plant, which is under construction and set for completion the summer of 2013. The main reason the city cited for sticking with surface water is the additional cost of treating hard water - an expense that will be felt next year should the dry weather continue.

Included in the 2013 public utilities budget is an extra $50,000, the estimated cost of treating the hard water.

"It's going to be a balancing act," said Nemmers, admitting the drought is hitting the city at a particularly difficult time, as utility customers already are complaining about rate hikes needed to pay for the new water plant.

"In the end, it still comes down to cost," he said, regarding the city's decision to build a treatment plant designed primarily for surface water. "If we're still in a drought over the next 20 years, then maybe it wasn't the most cost effective to go with surface water ..."

Besides looking to well water, the city is exploring other options for making better use of an increasingly valuable resource. Recycling wastewater and improving storm water retention are two possibilities.

Mankato has a plant in place to process and reuse most of its wastewater, an increasingly popular option, particularly in the southwest portion of the United States. Fairmont discharges its wastewater into Center Creek, so the dilution rate would be improved by discharging instead into George Lake, according to Nemmers.

"We're talking with the [Minnesota Pollution Control Agency] and DNR as to what they'll allow us to do," he said.

Nemmers realizes public perception would be yet another obstacle to tackle should the state agree to let Fairmont recycle its wastewater.

"In a drought condition, people start to realize the value of water," he said.



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