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State grants expand local well-sealing program

Another $20,000 in state grants awarded this summer to Austin Utilities is providing a boost to a local partnership offering cost-share assistance for sealing unused wells.

Mower Soil & Water Conservation District will continue as the lead agency for the well-sealing partnership launched in January with Austin Utilities. Mower SWCD determines if interested applicants have an unused or abandoned well in a high-priority area for groundwater protection and assists with the cost-share application.

Any property that uses water from Austin Utilities — the municipal water provider for the City of Austin — will qualify for its cost-share program. Austin Utilities recently was approved for $20,000 in cost-share grant funds for well sealing from the Minnesota Department of Health.

Cost-share assistance from Mower SWCD and Austin Utilities covers 50 percent of the costs for sealing a well, but the cost-share cannot exceed $1,000. Contractors licensed with the state for well sealing must be used for the project; Austin Utilities also has new criteria to follow under its MDH grants.

Under the local partnership, 15 unused wells have been sealed in Mower County since August 2019, when Mower SWCD started offering cost-share assistance with funds from a state grant for southeast Minnesota. Nine other wells have been approved for sealing this year, but have not been completed yet.

Groundwater is the source of drinking water for most people living in Mower County. Unused and abandoned wells pose risks to the safety of drinking-water resources underground as well as the physical safety of people on the property.

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 joined Mower SWCD in January with $10,000 of its own funding to offer well-sealing cost-share. Overall, Mower SWCD and Austin Utilities have at least $27,000 in funds to offer this year in cost-share assistance for sealing unused wells. With the new state grants, the total cost-share funding is more than $47,000, with about $30,000 of that targeted specifically for Austin Utilities’ water customers.

Those with unused wells outside of Austin in high-priority areas should apply by Sept. 1, 2020. After that date, Mower SWCD will move to other wells in non-priority areas of Mower County as the grant needs to be used by the end of this year, according to Tim Ruzek, water plan and outreach coordinator for Mower SWCD.

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

Austin Utilities became involved with well sealing after completing a 10-year wellhead protection plan in 2019.

All inquiries for cost-share should go through Mower SWCD. Applicants who qualify for cost-share from Austin Utilities will work with Jorgenson after the application is completed with Mower SWCD.

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 Ruzek at Mower SWCD at 507-993-2518 (cell) or by email at tim@mowerdistrict.org.

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