State controls local water issue

FAIRMONT – Fairmont has been drawing four times more water than what the state allows, or so said a recent article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

But the issue is more complicated, with the full story looking bad for the state and the city.

“The DNR sure threw us under the bus,” one Fairmont Public Utilities Commissioner said after reading the article.

Twenty-plus years ago, the Department of Natural Resources approved a request from the city to withdraw 680 million gallons of water per year from Budd Lake, and that figure remains in effect to today. Last year, Fairmont used 485 million gallons, which is well under the allotment.

Back when the city first began planning for a new water treatment plant, staff contacted the DNR to ask about increasing how much water can be withdrawn from the lake, and the response was positive. Unfortunately, it wasn’t official. Fairmont Public Works director Troy Nemmers still has the emails on file, in which the DNR said there would not be a problem increasing the annual allotment to 850 million gallons per year. However, the DNR would not accept an appropriation request to make it official.

“We could not submit an appropriation request unless we could prove we needed that additional water,” Nemmers explained.

Even though the city was building a larger water treatment plant, that was not proof enough.

The complication arose when the city was finally able to submit a request to the DNR, asking to increase how much water it can withdraw in a year. Buffalo Lake Energy, an ethanol plant that has since halted operations, wanted to stop using groundwater and hook up to Fairmont’s water system. Much to city staff’s surprise, the answer from the state was no.

In researching the request, the DNR found a formula that mandates how much surface water can be drawn down. Based on that formula, Fairmont was already withdrawing four times more water than allowed. In light of this information, the DNR could potentially reduce how much water the city can use, but it appears the state is not going to enforce the rule. (The drought, on the other hand, has forced mandated conservation efforts locally.)

“I don’t know that anyone was aware of it,” said Nemmers, acknowledging that it “doesn’t necessarily look good for either of us.”

Further exacerbating the situation for the city is the ongoing criticism that the new plant is being built with unrealistic expectations of business and housing growth. Now that those critics realize the state will not allow the city to expand its water usage, building for any type of growth seems wasteful. There is also an old resentment about the city choosing surface water over groundwater.

The existing plant is capable of treating a maximum of 4.5 million gallons of water per day, and the new plant will be able to treat up to 5.4 million gallons per day when it is completed. The maximum capability is just for peak usage, Nemmers explained.

When a plant maxes out consistently, it is difficult to keep up with maintenance, and its lifespan will decrease. The new facility is actually designed to handle, ideally, an average of 2.35 million gallons per day. On average, the existing plant treats 1.3 million gallons per day.

“That’s a big misconception, that the design is 5.4 and we’re only using 1.3,” Nemmers said.

The drought, too, has raised eyebrows and questions about whether the city went the right route with surface water. The watering ban that has been in place since September was required only because the city uses surface water. Not until the Blue Earth River reaches the necessary height at the Rapidan Dam can Fairmont residents water their lawns and gardens using city water.

Last fall, in an interview with the Sentinel, Nemmers said in reference to the decision to build a plant designed primarily for surface water: “In the end, it still comes down to cost. 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 …”

Partially because of the drought and partially due to the DNR limiting future increases in Fairmont’s water usage, city staff is exploring different options.

Back in November, the Sentinel reported that the city was applying to withdraw more water from an emergency well. Fairmont is still waiting to hear back from the DNR about using the additional well water. If approved, the underground source would be treated and used in addition to surface water. Included in the 2013 Public Utilities budget is an extra $50,000, the estimated cost of treating the hard water – not the additional “hundreds of thousands of dollars more a year” reported by the Pioneer Press.

Another possibility being explored is to recycle water treated at the wastewater plant. Currently, the treated water is discharged into Elm Creek, but if the city was allowed to pump it back into Fairmont’s lakes, the shortage could be alleviated.

At this point, how much water the city can use in the future is in the state’s hands.