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Partnership expands effort to seal unused wells

Mower SWCD, Austin Utilities offer cost-share to protect groundwater


More property owners in Mower County can apply for financial help to seal unused wells thanks to a new partnership aimed at protecting groundwater resources that provide drinking water. 

Mower Soil & Water Conservation District and Austin Utilities — the city of Austin’s municipal water provider — are partnering this year to offer cost-share assistance to get more unused wells sealed properly, especially those in areas of Mower County deemed highly vulnerable for drinking water.

This is an expansion of Mower SWCD’s cost-share assistance program that started in late August with a state grant.

Overall, Mower SWCD and Austin Utilities have at least $17,000 in funds to offer this year in cost-share assistance for sealing unused wells. Financial aid will be 50 percent of the well sealing’s cost, but capped at $1,000 per well. Officials believe other grant funds likely could be secured this year to help even more property owners.

In the same way as the Mower SWCD cost-share started last fall, Mower County property owners who apply now for cost-share will be considered on a “first-come, first-served” basis, with the focus on priority areas for groundwater protection, said Tim Ruzek, Mower SWCD’s water planner and outreach coordinator.

Since September, Mower SWCD has offered the same cost-share assistance for sealing unused wells in highly vulnerable areas of Mower County, using $10,000 of a $50,000 state grant awarded to a 10-county area of southeast Minnesota. High demand led Mower SWCD to get more than its initial $5,000 in cost-share funds. 

Under that program, five homeowners used cost-share to seal a well last fall at an average cost of $1,779 per well, Ruzek said. Another six wells are approved for cost-share, but still need to be sealed later this year, he added.

All property owners in Mower County who have an unused or abandoned well are encouraged to apply for cost-share assistance, Ruzek said, because funding might become available for sealing wells in non-priority areas.

“We’ve had a strong amount of interest in cost-share for well sealing,” Ruzek said. “We’re grateful for our partnership with Austin Utilities that will get many more wells sealed in the county and help protect our groundwater.”

Ruzek is leading the new cost-share effort with Todd Jorgenson, Austin Utilities’ gas and water operations director.

Austin Utilities, which completed a 10-year wellhead protection plan last year, is committing $10,000 this year for cost-share on sealing wells in its drinking water supply management area and on properties of any Austin Utilities water customer.

Mower SWCD has more than $7,000 to use this year under the state’s Natural Resources Block Grant to Mower County awarded annually by the Minnesota Board of Water & Soil Resources.

All inquiries for cost-share should go through Mower SWCD. Applicants who qualify for cost-share from Austin Utilities then will be passed on to its staff; the others will go through Mower SWCD’s cost-share approval process.

Groundwater is the main source of water for residents in Mower County and southeast Minnesota. Unused wells should be sealed for physical safety; health and environment; and legal responsibilities, the Minnesota Department of Health says.

An unused well can act like a drain that allows surface water runoff, contaminated water or improperly disposed waste a direct path into drinking water sources. When this happens, everyone’s drinking water quality is threatened — city water wells, neighbors’ wells and the landowner’s current well — which is why the state advises homeowners to test their water annually.

Austin Utilities provides drinking water to its residents from a groundwater source: eight wells ranging from 110 to 1,075 feet deep that draw water from the Prairie Du Chien-Jordan, Spillville, and St. Peter aquifers. Austin’s water quality is especially high due to well depth and the quality of the source. Given that, there is little need for treatment.

Mower County landowners interested in cost-share assistance for well sealing should contact Tim Ruzek at Mower SWCD at 507-460-4577 or by email at tim@mowerdistrict.org. Those interested also can stop by the Mower SWCD office in Austin between 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at 1408 21st Ave. N.W.

For more information on well sealing, visit the Minnesota Department of Health’s website at:  www.health.state.mn.us