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Ocheyedan River again goes dry despite new state requirements

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Posted at 5:42 PM, Oct 08, 2023

A segment of the Ocheyedan River in northwest Iowa has run dry again near the point where a rural water utility draws drinking water from the ground, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

The department recently placed new requirements on the water-use permit for the Osceola County Rural Water System to prevent the river from drying up, which has now happened five times in the past eight years.

Ed Jones, an Osceola County supervisor who lives near the dry segment of the river, said the DNR should prevent the utility from drawing water from wells near the river unless it has abundant flow. Right now, the state requires the utility to shut down wells when their water levels are low.

“This isn’t rocket science,” Jones said.

The water utility has ceased pumping from two of its wells and has reduced pumping at two more, said Chad Fields, a geologist for the DNR.

The wells draw water from an alluvial aquifer that is fed by the river. When water is pumped from the aquifer, river water is more likely to seep into the ground.

“Osceola County Rural Water System is in a data-gathering phase, keeping close attention to their pumping and the effects on streamflow,” Fields said. “We’re currently in informal negotiations to set conditions on the permit, depending on if we can come to an agreement with them.”

The utility has resisted increased restrictions on its water-use permit, claiming it’s not at fault for the river segment drying up. The last time the dry segment appeared, which was last year, the county had pumped water from a nearby quarry and contributed to the problem.

But now, “the gravel pits are not contributing to the dry segment, as they are not dewatering or moving water,” said Carmily Stone, supervisor of the DNR’s Water Supply Engineering Section.

Doug Westerman, general manager of the Osceola County Rural Water System, confirmed that the utility is adjusting its water pumping rates and monitoring the effect on the river but declined to comment further. He has said the utility has other wells away from the river that can compensate for the pumping reductions at the wells near the river.

Jones noted that the river near May City was dry nearly three weeks ago but might have been recharged by recent rainfall. Osceola County and the Minnesota county to its north where the Ocheyedan River begins have been suffering from drought conditions since October 2022, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Fields said the water utility is complying with new requirements the DNR imposed this summer, which include:

— When the surface of the river goes below a certain height above sea level, the utility must take photographs twice each week of the river upstream and downstream of its wells near the river. It must also report how much water it is pumping from wells in the area and monitor water levels in the wells.

— When the water levels in the wells fall beneath certain points, the wells must be temporarily shut down.

It’s unclear when the ongoing negotiations between the DNR and the water utility will conclude.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: info@iowacapitaldispatch.com. Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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