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Worsening drought conditions could mean tighter water restrictions in Willmar

Willmar Municipal Utilities is keeping a close eye on the drought conditions in Willmar. Currently, the utilities department is able to meet the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources restrictions, but if the drought worsens, Willmar Municipal Utilities might have to take more action.

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Mandatory watering restrictions remain in place for Willmar Municipal Utilities customers as the drought continues. Photo from Shutterstock.

WILLMAR — As summer slides into August, the drought conditions that have gripped Minnesota don't seem to be going anywhere soon. Willmar, as of Monday, is still listed as being in a severe drought . However, conditions are worse in some areas of Kandiyohi County, where an extreme drought has already been called.

"Since early June we've had a summer of hot and dry conditions," said Alan Neer, Willmar Municipal Utilities water system supervisor.

Willmar Municipal Utilities has been watching the changing conditions carefully in an attempt to be proactive when water conservation is needed. Neer gave an update at Monday's meeting of the Municipal Utilities Commission on drought response.

One such proactive step took place June 11, when the utilities called for yard watering restrictions to reduce water usage.

"Everybody was watering like gangbusters," Neer said.

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In addition, a control issue at the Northeast Water Treatment Plant and a fire in town increased the pressure on the city's water system, with it running at 94% capacity for the week of June 6 through June 11. To protect the system, Willmar Municipal Utilities ordered the restrictions to make sure there was enough water to meet the city's basic needs.

"We've regained everything and our system is very resilient and operating as normal," Neer said.

Those watering restrictions remain in place and have been successful, helping meet current Minnesota Department of Natural Resources water restrictions based on the state drought plan . Those restrictions say that Willmar should be using only 50 percent above its January average daily use of water of about 3,750,000 gallons per day. Currently that means Willmar needs to average 5.6 million gallons a day, which it mostly has been able to do.

"We were able to head off any issues," Neer said.

Willmar Municipal Utilities staff have been speaking with the largest water users in the system to find ways to conserve water in case tighter restrictions are on the way. If Willmar finds itself in an extreme drought, Willmar Municipal Utilities will need to reduce water usage again, by an additional average of 300,000 gallons a day, to reach 25 percent above the January average.

"We're fairly confident we will be able to pick up those 300,000 gallons" through conservation efforts with customers, said John Harren, Willmar Municipal Utilities general manager.

This is one of the worst droughts the Willmar area has ever dealt with, at least within the memory of those working at Willmar Municipal Utilities. As such, staff are working on creating drought procedures and policies Willmar Municipal Utilities can follow, both now and for future droughts.

"We are building it as we go," Neer said.

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How long or severe the drought will be — and its connected water restrictions will last — all depend on the weather. Unfortunately, the monthly drought outlook from the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center shows drought conditions continuing at least through August, and possibly into the end of October.

Whether Minnesota has a wet or dry winter will also have a major impact on both drought conditions and on Willmar's water supply. Neer said currently the city's wells are still robust. However, if it is a dry winter, the aquifers might not recharge as normal.

"We will know more after the winter months and into spring, if we recover or not," Neer said.

Willmar Municipal Utilities is in a wait and see mode, like the entire state, on when the drought may end and restrictions can be pulled back.

"It is certainly a fluid situation," said Municipal Utilities Commission President Justin Mattern.

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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