BENSON - Swift County is forming a task force to consider how best to manage the growing demand on its groundwater resources.

Groundwater usage in the county has been rising steadily since the early 1990s. Observation wells in the county show a corresponding, steady decline in the water levels in aquifers ever since, according to information presented by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Benson.

Some 30 people, including elected officials, large water users and interested citizens, attended a meeting hosted by the county Tuesday to discuss the water issues emerging in the county. The Benson area is one of 40 communities identified as "priorities" for the Minnesota DNR to call attention to groundwater issues, according to Tim Gieseke, a groundwater planner for the region with the department.

Gieseke said the DNR is encouraging the formation of what it calls Community-based Aquifer Management Partnerships. The goal is to bring elected officials and water users together to jointly manage groundwater usage before conflicts occur.

Current trends point to the potential for conflicts. The water level in a monitoring well in the city of Benson has declined by about 15 feet since the early 1990s. It's located in the middle aquifer, the largest of the aquifers available to the community. Increased demand on that aquifer by new users led the city of Benson to develop a third and deeper well to tap a lower aquifer for additional water about 10 years ago.

Other monitoring wells around the county all show downward trend lines as well. None has remained flat, according to Gieseke.

"It's not an emergency, but it is concerning," Anne Hall, a DNR hydrologist, told the audience.

The increased demand comes from a variety of users. Irrigation on farmlands has been growing, and represents the largest use of groundwater in the Benson area.

The county has seen the arrival of large dairies in recent years. Benson also has seen large industrial users - including the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company and, until recently, the Fibrominn power plant - tap into aquifers serving the community.

Much of the decline in aquifers can be attributed to the increased usage. It was also asked whether increased subsurface drainage on farmlands is diverting water that would otherwise help recharge the aquifers. Hall said a white paper by the Minnesota Groundwater Association determined that research is needed to answer that question.

Under current law, the Minnesota DNR issues appropriation permits for large water users of over 10,000 gallons a day or 1 million gallons a year.

The DNR will not deny a permit to a new user, even if the additional usage could adversely affect present users, Hall said in response to a question. "That person has just as much right to use the water as you do,'' she explained.

In those cases, the DNR tries to bring all of the appropriators together to voluntarily work out a means of sharing the available water.

Dru Tosel, an irrigator from Appleton, said it can be difficult to navigate the current regulatory hurdles. He said the expansion of irrigation and the dairy and ethanol industries have increased the county's tax base and created jobs, and should be supported. He encouraged an approach in which the county and state work together to assist development, "as long as we don't suck our aquifers dry."

The first step will be the development of a task force to look at the groundwater issues in the county. Kelsey Baker, Swift County administrator, said the County Board of Commissioners wants to appoint a task force that represents the entire county, and is now in the process of seeking people interested in serving on it. Interested persons may contact the county administrator or Scott Collins, environmental services director, or Andy Albertsen, Soil and Water Conservation District director.