School tackles water problem

FAIRMONT – Fairmont High School’s football and baseball fields are buried under several inches of snow, but the district is already looking ahead to the hot summer months and how a continuation of last year’s drought could affect the fields’ condition.

“We are the only district in our conference that isn’t allowed to water our fields,” said Joe Brown, superintendent.

The district can’t water them because of a watering restriction instituted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and reinforced by the city of Fairmont last September.

The restriction bans all non-essential water use, defined as lawn/garden sprinkling, vehicle washing, golf course and park irrigation, and other non-essential uses.

Dry fields are hard – some say too hard to safety practice rough and tumble sports.

“Our No. 1 concern is for the safety of our kids,” Brown said. “It is a safety issue.”

Football coach Mat Mahoney said the players have difficulty getting traction on hard fields, putting them at risk for leg and knee injuries. If they fall, the consequences could be worse.

“It is like running on concrete,” he said. “They are out there slipping and sliding. If they fall, you increase your chances of getting a concussion.”

But with the watering ban in effect and no end to the drought in the foreseeable future even with the recent rain, the district has begun looking into other options for its fields.

The school board operations committee is currently investigating the feasibility of installing a well on the property for use watering the football and baseball fields.

The soccer fields are not maintained by the district, as they are owned by the city of Fairmont.

Installing a well could have additional financial benefits for the district even after the drought is over.

According to Dave Ternberg, director of buildings and grounds at Fairmont, the water cost for irrigating the varsity football and baseball fields at the Jr/Sr High School for 2012 was $11,362.42.

Brown estimates the cost to install a well at between $10,000 and $20,000.

“The $10,000-20,000 is a one-time cost,” he said. “We are spending at least that much every summer.”

But what could be a solution for the school could cause problems for the city.

According to city administrator Mike Humpal, there is no ordinance prohibiting the school from drilling a well. There are wells on private property within city limits already, although Humpal said none have been installed since at least 1995, when he began working with the city.

But having no ordinance against it doesn’t translate into supporting the idea.

The municipal water system – including the water plant being built on South Prairie Avenue – was created to ensure a safe system for everyone within city limits.

In an email exchange between Humpal and Brown, Humpal describes it this way:

“This investment is funded by the users, and if private wells are allowed then the base to fund the system is depleted and the rates for all other goes up. Therefore the city has taken the policy position that it discourages private well installation.”

Humpal said he isn’t so concerned that the amount of water the district will use to water their fields will cause a significant rise in rates, but if the district drilling a well begins a trend, affects will be seen in water bills eventually.

“We need to protect the integrity of our financial system,” Humpal said.

In addition, the city needs to ensure the well doesn’t cross contaminate the water flowing in municipal pipes.

“If the school district drills, we need to make sure it doesn’t cross connect with our water,” Humpal said.

As for the watering ban, Humpal said it is up to the DNR when it is lifted.

School board member Myron Moeller said the process is in its early stages.

“I cannot anticipate a timeline on the project,” he said. “We are just looking into it right now, to see what needs to be done and what it would cost.”