Mille Lacs County residents can help map groundwater from their backyards.

The Mille Lacs Soil and Water Conservation District is collecting information on wells throughout the county as a first step toward creating a geological atlas of soil and water.

The atlas is essentially an underground map in two parts. Part A is a map of the rock and soil beneath the surface. The second part is a map of the groundwater underneath Mille Lacs County compiled by the DNR, according to District Administrator Susan Shaw.

“The groundwater component would include an understanding or assessment of risk to contamination from the surface, quantity of water and where or how it slows — if it’s stuck in pockets under chunks of our land or if it is moving through,” Shaw said.

Analyzing the risk to ground water includes factors like how fast water filters through the ground — the faster it flows the greater vulnerability groundwater may have to pollutants from the surface. In a simplified example Shaw compared the sandy soil often found around Princeton to the more tightly packed soil common near Milaca.

“If you spill your glass of water in your sandy yard, it just absorbs very quickly, it moves through that soil profile very quickly,” Shaw said. “If you spill the same glass of water, or your beer, in Milaca, you’ll probably get a puddle for a moment or two or three, or an hour, before it really soaks into the ground.”

The vulnerability of groundwater and simply identifying where groundwater is can be important for homeowners and businesses. If a business requires water to operate, they may want to know if there is enough readily available to support that work. Right now, judging the amount of water is a bit of a guessing game, because there is not a lot of information available on where groundwater sits below the county, according to Shaw.

Knowing where groundwater is also helps homeowners understand what could impact the water they use for drinking, bathing and more. As it is, the majority of Mille Lacs County residents pull water from underground for their needs, according to Shaw.

“I’m not aware of anyone pulling surface water from the river or a stream for drinking water,” Shaw said.

The soil itself is also somewhat of a mystery. The ground in Mille Lacs County is made up of complex layers, which Shaw described as similar to cookie dough ice cream.

“We assume things about what’s down there, and we have some information about what’s down there, but there’s a lot we don’t know,” Shaw said.

In order to complete the atlas, the district needs to connect 4,115 paper well records to existing well locations, according to its website. Once a homeowner identifies the specific location of a well, that information can be used to build a map of underground soil types.

The well records come from the county well index, a database that contains information on wells across Minnesota. In 1974 The state began requiring drillers to submit a boring record with the Minnesota Department of Health, according to the district’s website. That record shows what soil and rock types the borer ran into, according to Shaw.

The district wants to confirm the location of a well to within 20 feet, Shaw said. If the district can’t identify a location using aerial photographs and a homeowner’s description, they may reach out to the homeowner for permission to send staff out to confirm the location.

If that doesn’t work, the data from the well probably won’t be used, because it could pollute the accuracy of the map, according to Shaw.

Earlier this year the district received a $300 grant from the Rum River Community Foundation for a program that worked with teachers and students in Milaca High School and elementary as well as Onamia High School. The activity was a two-part project. The first part was a worksheet students could use in conjunction with the organization’s website to learn vocabulary surrounding soil and water. Part two was an optional step that the kids could take home, according to intern Adele Olson.

Back home they could work with a relative to locate their well using the general public survey.

“This partnership with the SWCD has been a great opportunity for Milaca students,” Milaca High School teacher Dough Olson wrote. “One thing that we try to get students to think about is where the water comes from when they turn on the faucet, and where does it go when they pull the plug on the drain, or flush the toilet. It is easy to take fresh water for granted, especially in Minnesota, but there are so many places in the world, even throughout the U.S., that would do anything to have our water.”

Identifying the wells is just the first step of what could be a long process. From start to finish the project could take about seven years, according to Shaw.

Residents can participate in the survey by going to millelacsswcd.org. More information can be found by calling the district at 320-983-2160.

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