Residents complain of water problems after Elko New Market pumping test

A water tower stands above trees and houses
The Elko New Market water tower stands above a neighborhood in town, pictured on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Some residents who live near Elko New Market want answers after water from their private wells turned gray or yellow and contained black sediment late last year.

The residents say the changes occurred around the same time the city was conducting an aquifer test by pumping groundwater at higher-than-normal rates. Those who reported problems live in New Market or Eureka townships, outside of the Elko New Market city limits.

The pump test was prompted by a proposal by a California-based company, Niagara Bottling, to build a facility in Elko New Market to produce bottled water. 

The plant would draw from the city’s water supply. Elko New Market is asking the Department of Natural Resources for approval to substantially increase the amount of groundwater it pumps to supply to the plant. The DNR is expected to decide on the city’s permit request within the next few weeks. 

Some residents worry the water woes could be a sign of things to come if the plant is built.

“We’re concerned about the quality of our drinking water, and if it’s going to be affected when they turn on the pumping permanently,” said New Market Township resident Janelle Kuznia.

Sara Lofgren first noticed her water looked a bit cloudy in December. Then one day in January, she turned on the bathtub faucet so one of her kids could take a bath.

“We started filling the tub, and it just looked dark gray,” Lofgren said.

A bathtub full of water
Sara Lofgren of New Market Township says her well water turned gray last December while the city of Elko New Market was conducting an aquifer test by pumping additional groundwater.
Courtesy photo

She called a plumber, who recommended installing a new filtration system to remove iron and other minerals. Lofgren ended up installing a whole new filtration system, at a cost of $6,000.

Then in April, she saw a post in a local Facebook group wondering if anyone else had experienced water issues.

After sharing stories, the residents now believe their wells were affected by the aquifer test.

“We realized that it was happening while the pump test was going on, and so we are very concerned,” Kuznia said.

When Kuznia went to change her water filter in December, it was full of black material, with a coat of tannish-gray slime on the outside — something she’d never seen before. 

Kuznia hasn’t had her water tested yet. But after talking to experts, she believes the black substance was probably manganese, a naturally occurring mineral that can pose health risks at higher levels.

“When they’re pumping that much water, it could have just knocked some of that free, causing more of it to go into our wells,” she said.

For Kuznia and other residents who already opposed the Niagara plant, the water problems they experienced only deepened their fears about long-term impacts.

Lofgren said she already was against the plant because of her concerns about plastic pollution, but the experience convinced her there’s more at stake.

“There’s actually a legit risk of having too much strain on the aquifer with the volume of water that they want to pump,” she said.

A utility truck at a construction site
Utility crews work near the site of the proposed Niagara Bottling facility near Elko New Market.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The aquifer test was conducted from Nov. 8 until Dec. 7. The DNR received complaints from 22 well owners, most in April, said spokesperson Erik Evans in an email to MPR News.

Evans said the DNR told residents it’s evaluating their concerns and all of the information gathered for the city’s permit request.

It is possible for a change in pumping rates to result in water quality changes, he said. 

“The DNR has anecdotal information of similar experiences in other parts of the state where residents have seen discolored water that resolves shortly after the test is complete,” Evans said.

If the city’s permit request is approved, it would need to include conditions to monitor and address complaints about water quality or well interference that might arise from increased pumping, Evans said.

Most of the township residents say their water has returned to normal. Several installed costly filtration systems that require ongoing maintenance.

“They’re expensive options for the residents,” said Carrie Jennings, research and policy director at the nonprofit Freshwater. “Some of them have already spent multiple thousands of dollars on treatment systems, replacing fixtures and clothing.”

Jonathan and Jami Carlson, who live near the proposed plant site, had to replace their water softening system late last year because it couldn’t keep up with increased manganese and sediment in the water. They also had to replace a toilet whose tank and bowl were stained black.

Jonathan Carlson said they’re concerned that if the DNR allows the city to pump at the higher level, the manganese level will increase.

“We’re very concerned that we won’t be able to stay on a well,” he said.

A filtration system
Jonathan and Jami Carlson had a six-tank filtration system installed in their home to remove manganese from their well water, which they attribute to recent groundwater pumping tests conducted by the city of Elko New Market.
Courtesy photo

Residents also reported their concerns to state health officials, who are looking into whether the increased pumping could have affected nearby wells.

“Water chemistry is really complex,” said Tannie Eshenaur, water policy manager at the Minnesota Department of Health. “So anytime there’s a change in pumping volume, there’s a potential for a change in water quality.”

Eshenaur advises all well owners to have their water tested annually for bacteria and nitrate, and at least once for arsenic and manganese — a neurotoxin that can affect brain development in infants.

“If it exceeds one of our health guidance values, we recommend strongly that they get treatment,” Eshenaur said.

Elko New Market Mayor Joe Julius said the city is gathering information about the township residents’ complaints, but it’s still early in the process.

“We need to get to the bottom of it,” he said. “We need to figure out what’s going on and make sure that whatever is going on with the water is not a result of the aquifer situation.”

Even with the increased permit, the city will still pump a fraction of the water used by larger cities such as Lakeville and Faribault, Julius said.

“We’re still very, very small in the water usage scheme of things,” he said. “So if our aquifer tests are causing this much problems, I think the entire region … really needs to be proactive about how they’re going to deal with well interference issues.”

Freshwater’s Carrie Jennings believes there should be a more coordinated, metro-wide approach to requests to use more groundwater, instead of leaving those decisions to local governments. 

Jennings cited other examples of water-intensive industries, such as data centers and large animal feedlots. State and local governments should work together to manage those requests and direct them to areas where there is enough water, Jennings said.

“Those businesses currently can just approach the local governments and get the permits that they need there,” she said.