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Well drillers struggle to keep up with demand for water

Minnesota's summer drought is having an effect on demand for water.

Kelly Elsner.jpg
Kelly Elsner has operated Elsner Well Drilling in Park Rapids, Minnesota, for 36 years. (Contributed / Elsner Well Drilling)
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MOORHEAD, Minn. — The stock ponds Kris Folland uses to water about 100 cattle on his Kittson County, Minnesota, farm are shrinking to muddy puddles.

"The ponds are basically all dry,” said Folland. “The other day I dug a 14-foot deep hole, cleaned one [pond] out, and there was almost no water in it after two days."

Folland is hauling about 1,000 gallons of water a day 7 miles from his farm to his cattle pastures, an unusual situation in a part of the state where groundwater has been plentiful.

"We just have not struggled with drought conditions and ponds going dry quite like this," he said.

A well drilled a few years ago as a backup system for watering cattle stopped working earlier this summer, so he decided to have a new well drilled.

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"I've called a few different well drillers in the area and we're anywhere from one to two years out,” said Folland. “And one company that I called in North Dakota, they said we'd be number 30 on the list, which actually didn't sound as bad as I thought, but I doubt they'll get to number 30 this year."

Well drillers are in demand across the state. Kelly Elsner has operated a well drilling business based in Park Rapids for 36 years.

"We average about 15 to 17 wells a week on our average week,” he said. “We are backed up about 130 wells right now."

Last year was busier than normal, said Elsner, but this year is shaping up to be his busiest ever.

The drought is having some effect on demand, but Elsner said the greatest number of new wells in his area are for people moving from the city to the country.

"We live in God's country, number one. Number two, you know, many, many people are fleeing the cities, you know they're wanting to get into the country."

Elsner said the increased demand comes at a time when the industry is shrinking as contractors retire or leave the business and are not replaced. He’s also hampered by a worker shortage.

"We've got a total of 14 employees, but could use 20 to 25 employees if we could find them," he said.

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His crews are working long days, trying to keep up with demand. Elsner said it’s hard, dirty work and it’s difficult to find workers who can do the work while maintaining the quality standards he requires.

And his situation is reflective of the entire industry.

"This isn't just something that is unique to Minnesota, but it's happening across the country," said Dave Schulenberg, executive director of the Minnesota Water Well Association, and director of partner states for the National Groundwater Association.

Schulenberg said there is no data on the current backlog of new wells, but all of the contractors he talks to are struggling to keep up with demand.

"I ask them the generic question, you know, ‘How are you doing today? How's things going?’ [They say] ‘We're swamped, busiest we've been in years, busiest I've ever been.’ Those are the standard answers right now to that question, how are things going," he said.

While high demand is the primary pressure on well contractors, Schulenberg said another complicating factor is lingering supply chain disruptions for necessary materials.

"You have COVID still playing havoc with things, a surge in new construction, as well as the drought, and you also run into the fact that there's a manpower issue."

The state health department registers new wells, but there's a lag in data because well drillers have 60 days to submit information after a well is drilled. The agency declined an interview request but provided data showing there was an increase in wells drilled last year over recent years, and officials said department staff has heard from state residents who are facing long waits for a new well.

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The Minnesota DNR has received more complaints about domestic well problems so far this year than several previous years combined.

Kelly Elsner expects the high demand for wells to ease sometime, he's just not sure when that will happen.

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