Water utility near dried-up river pushes back against restrictions

By: - April 5, 2023 3:39 pm

This section of the Ocheyedan River was dry last year. (Photo by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

MAY CITY, Iowa — A rural water utility in northwest Iowa wants to relax its state-mandated reporting requirements despite regulators’ finding that it contributed to a river running dry last year.

“We’re done being bullied,” said Doug Westerman, general manager of the Osceola County Rural Water System. “We’re done being pushed around.”

A two-mile segment of the Ocheyedan River had no water near May City starting in September. Melting snow has since recharged it.

A section of the Ocheyedan River was dry for months in 2022. (Photo by Ed Jones)

The fall dryout killed a large number of fish and other aquatic life.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which is charged with protecting the state’s waterways, determined that two entities caused that section of the Ocheyedan to go dry amid an ongoing drought: the rural water system and Osceola County. In November, the DNR asked both of them to submit plans to help avoid future dryouts, which have happened four times in the past seven years.

The county occasionally pumps water from a quarry near the river to excavate rock. The water utility has wells near the river that draw from a shallow aquifer that surrounds the river.

The county’s pumping lowers the water table in the area, which draws water from the river. It pumped the water from the quarry last summer into the river and likely disguised the impending problem for months, said Chad Fields, a geologist for the DNR.

After the county stopped pumping, the section of river dried out.

The water utility’s withdrawal of groundwater also draws river water into the ground, but Westerman said the impact is too small to have caused the dryness last year.

“Whether we exist or don’t exist, that river was going dry,” he said.

Much of northwest Iowa was in varying degrees of drought throughout last year. Despite some alleviation of those conditions, parts of Osceola County are still under moderate or severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The county has proposed that it restrict its pumping from the quarry in July and August, when arid conditions are most likely. It typically dewaters the quarry once every several years, and the river has gone dry when the county wasn’t pumping water from there.

The Osceola County Rural Water System draws water from wells near the Ocheyedan River. (Photo by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The water utility has decided that its current requirements — which include taking photos of the river and submitting reports of its daily pumping rates for wells near the river when its flow is low — are too strict.

Those are “a little punitive towards Osceola Rural Water and feel we are being singled out,” the utility wrote to the DNR last week.

The utility proposes to eliminate the reporting requirements. Instead, it suggests to reduce its pumping rates when the river is low or to pump water from the ground into the river bed to supplement its flow. Westerman said there is plenty of water in the aquifer, even when the river is low, and that it has sufficient supply from its other wells if it must slow some of them.

The utility also wants solid evidence that it is culpable.

“If you’re going to say we’re the problem, we’re going to force you to prove it,” Westerman said.

He said a large segment of the river — potentially all the way to Lake Bella, across the Minnesota border — had little or no flow last fall, and that the utility’s withdrawal of groundwater made no difference.

But Fields said the department is confident that, absent the pumping by the water utility and the county, there would have been flowing water in the Ocheyedan near May City last year.

The DNR is likely to decide what restrictions are necessary for the county and water utility in the coming months. Both can appeal the department’s decision.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.