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Backus: Wellhead protection plan qualifies city for grant funding

Echo Journal file photo

The Backus City Council learned its wellhead protection plan qualifies the city for state grants to eliminate contamination risks to the city's drinking water.

Christopher Parthun, principal planner with the Minnesota Department of Health, presented the wellhead protection plan at the Monday, Jan. 7, city council meeting. Findings revealed Backus's main well - Well 1 - is vulnerable to contamination because:

• Well 1 is not confined in a way that protects it from contamination.

• Tests on an isotope called tritium revealed that the water in Well 1 has been recently recharged by surface water.

The city has a secondary well for emergency backup. Well 2 is not vulnerable. It is deeper, in a different aquifer and is confined in a way that protects it from contamination.

In addition to identifying the vulnerability of the city's water sources, the wellhead protection plan also identified potential sources of contamination and venues for contamination to reach the water table. One above ground storage tank for heating fuel oil was identified as a moderate risk to the aquifer. There may be other efforts in the future to locate and identify above or below ground storage tanks or other risks to the water table in addition to possible unsealed wells, which could make the city well water more vulnerable.

Now, with a wellhead protection plan in place, the city can take action to protect the wellhead.

"The highest priority is certainly to manage potential contaminant sources," Parthun said.

With a wellhead protection plan in place, the city, and the fuel tank owner have options that would come free of cost to the city or the homeowner. The wellhead protection plan outlines what options they have, saying the city will:

"Provide aboveground tank owners with information on best management of the tank, and if the landowner is willing, apply for a grant to convert their heating source from fuel oil to another source, and properly abandon and remove the tank."

"A lot of communities have taken advantage of that," Parthun said. "I've had communities remove leaking underground storage tanks using that at no cost to the city. If landowners in Backus discover a private well and that landowner is willing, the city can write a grant application and receive funding to seal that well at no cost to the landowner or city."

The protection plan also lays out steps for identifying and responding to old wells in the protection area. Because wells were not truly documented until the 1970s, finding them today can require help from locals.

"According to the old municipal well report, what we are looking for are old historical references to well users such as a railroad," Parthun said. "Creameries would use a lot of water. Breweries would use a lot of water. That's why in the planning process, if there is an individual in the community who has lived there a long time, I encourage the wellhead team to invite them to a meeting and ask what they remember about the history of the town and where things were located."

The protection plan outlines other steps the city can take, including simpler steps like education.

"Sometimes simple responses like turning off water while brushing teeth or recycling motor oil properly," Parthun said.

The city has already begun planning the implementation of the wellhead protection plan. Months ago the city identified a tax-forfeited property north of the water tower. Purchase of the property could help the city with the implementation of the plan through meeting security needs and securing the area near the wellhead against potential contamination.

Andy Schwartz, of the Pine River Area Sanitary District, said the property could provide the city with expansion options if anything ever happens to one or both of the city's wells.

"We talked about six months ago about the property immediately north of the water tower and well house," said Schwartz. "That was something we were looking at. There is an implementation grant that is 100 percent funded through the Department of Health. I was looking at acquiring that piece of property. That is the first big one we are looking at and spill protection, but that is pretty small stuff."

Parthun said statewide wellhead planning first started in the '90s, but most plans went unused until the state developed grants to help pay for implementation. This is Backus's first wellhead protection plan.

Backus began the wellhead protection planning process in 2015. The process was supposed to be done in 2017, but job turnover in the state Department of Health resulted in a delay and a deadline extension. Because the city is under 3,300 people, the hydrologist prepared the first part of the plan for free. Because the city is below 500 people in population, the city qualified for free services to create the plan as well. The plan is good for 10 years, but planning for a new one will begin in eight years.

"Even though it didn't cost anything, there's a tremendous amount of value in that plan and the city council needs to consider the decisions they make in their regular course of business when permits and land use are being discussed," Parthun said.

The hydrologist who helped prepare the wellhead protection plan determined that the legacy gas bloom discovered by a family just outside of Backus does not pose a threat to the city's water supply because of its depth, and because it is moving away from the city's water supply.

"In the hydro's estimation and per Minnesota's rules, that particular residence was not included in the contaminant inventory," Parthun said.