Private wells may be banned in Fairmont

FAIRMONT – Since Fairmont implemented the watering ban last year due to the ongoing drought, City Hall has been fielding more and more questions about private wells.

Fairmont Area Schools recently made the news as the district as begun looking into wells in order to water its athletic fields.

“Should we be putting an ordinance in place to prohibit private wells?” city administrator Mike Humpal asked the Public Utilities Commission.

The group discussed the subject Tuesday morning, with plans to continue exploring safety concerns and the financial impact private wells have on the city.

Prohibiting private wells is not unheard of. The city of Princeton approved a ban in February, and the League of Minnesota Cities is recommending more cities follow suit. Fairmont is looking at Princeton’s ordinance to assist with drafting its own rules.

Private wells are becoming more popular, as more customers are becoming desperate to find ways to water their yards and gardens. Even when the watering ban ends, private wells can seem like a cheaper option than more expensive city water.

But when water usage drops, rates typically go up. The problem is the city still has to cover its expenses, including a $31 million water treatment plant.

“We’ve invested in a system to make sure we have safe, clean water,” Humpal said.

But city staff say there’s a bigger problem than revenue at stake with private wells.

“The biggest issue is safety,” said Fairmont’s public works director Troy Nemmers.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources does not regulate wells if less than 10,000 gallons a day is drawn, according to Butch Hybbert, Fairmont’s water treatment supervisor.

City staff’s concern is that the groundwater is not monitored, and potentially hazardous material could get sucked into Fairmont’s water system from a private well.

“Most new larger users are required to have backflow prevention,” Nemmers said, but residential customers don’t have the same reassurance.

“That’s why the county has IDs on wells in the country,” he said.

Just how many private wells are within city limits is unknown at this time.

“All my neighbors and I have wells,” said public utilities commissioner Dave Segar.

Segar lives on Shoreacres Drive, and he believes those wells were dug back in the 1950s, which was news to city staff. He’s in the process of getting his well filled, which is an expensive task.

“There’s not much we can do about existing wells,” Humpal said, and the city cannot afford to offer incentives to help people close off their wells.

Wells that have no ID numbers could be expensive one way or another for homeowners when they go to sell their property. Dale Schumann, a public utilities commissioner and a realtor with Century 21, said banks have been requiring homeowners to dig up old wells and properly refill them if they have no ID numbers.

“It’s not cheap,” Schumann said.

Rather than drilling private wells, city staff recommends residents desperate to water their lawns and gardens consider setting up rain barrels to capture rainwater run-off from roofs.

“You’d be amazed how much water comes off your roof,” Nemmers said.