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Ban on new wells sinks, for now

A public hearing on an ordinance to ban the drilling of new private wells in Alexandria drew a packed crowd at Monday night's council meeting, along with a stream of concerns and questions.

Three people from out of the area who represented well drilling groups opposed the idea.

Freeport Mayor Rodney Akenson told the council that people should have the right to decide where they're getting their water. He added that wells aren't causing nitrates to get into the groundwater; the contaminants are only discovered when a new well is drilled.

Danny Nubbe, a licensed well driller who serves on the Minnesota Advisory Council on Wells and Boring, questioned the need for an ordinance. "Where is the threat?" he asked. "I don't see one."

Joe Stevens with the Minnesota Water Well Association said court decisions that allow cities to regulate wells don't give them the power to prohibit wells.

Three local residents also spoke at the hearing but their main concern was if the ordinance would allow them to continue to use their wells. The answer: Yes, the ordinance only applies to new wells; even if the pump fails, it could be replaced and the well could continue to be used.

After the hearing, council member Todd Jensen made a motion to table the issue because he wanted to take a closer look at new information City Administrator Marty Schultz provided about the number of private wells that were drilled in the city since 2011. Schultz said the state health department told him 11 — eight domestic wells and three irrigation wells.

Because the numbers are low, Schultz said there's not long lines of people looking to drill new wells for domestic water service if city water service is available. Also, a prohibition on new private wells wouldn't appear to have a significant economic impact on local well drillers, he said.

Jensen said a local well driller disputes the numbers. Jensen's motion to table failed to get a second and the discussion continued.

Council member Virgil Batesole motioned to "disapprove" the ordinance and it was seconded by Bob Kuhlman, who said he didn't want local residents to face the contaminated water problem that arose in Flint, Michigan. "People who don't have a well would have to get fresh water by having to go out into the county or truck it in," he said.

After more debate about the legalities of banning new wells and before voting on Batesole's motion, the council unanimously approved Bobbie Osterberg's motion to table. "No one clearly understands the ordinance," she said.

The city has been considering amending its well ordinance for more than six years in an effort to protect the city's groundwater. A hearing last August also drew a big crowd and many of the same concerns.

Part of reason for the ordinance dates back to 1996, when the council approved an ordinance that required people to hook up to city water within five years after it was made available to them. The policy, however, was not enforced and caused confusion because it conflicted with the well policy for newly annexed areas, which allowed residents to continue to use their existing wells.

The proposed amendment would eliminate the five-year requirement and prohibit new private wells to be drilled in the city limits. Exemptions would be given only if certain factors exist — if there is no water service stub available, if the owner can prove that the city water would be detrimental to the property, such as a bait shop, or if the exemption would abide by the city's wellhead protection plan.

City leaders emphasized that residents could still use their wells for drinking water or irrigation but under the proposed ban, the wells couldn't be expanded or replaced. As in the past, all new construction in the city would have to connect to city water.

New data from Alexandria Light and Power estimates that about 1,200 properties have water service stubs at their property lines, but are still using private wells.

Last August, questions were raised whether the city can regulate the drilling of new private wells. Some believed that only a public health board could do it.

Since then, city staff researched the issue, contacted the League of Minnesota Cities and determined that the city does have the authority to determine whether a private well can be drilled. The health department regulates the technical aspects of how the well should be constructed, Schultz said.

The proposed ordinance doesn't apply to wells used for dewatering, groundwater monitoring, heating or cooling, elevator borings or environmental bore holes.

Last August, several people asked if they would qualify for an exemption. Rather than trying to include all the exceptions in the ordinance, the language is now streamlined to have two bodies consider such requests — the board of public works and the council, which would have the final say.

If approved, those who violate the well ordinance would face misdemeanor penalty and each day in violation would be considered a separate violation.

Al Edenloff
Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  
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