The demand for city water in Lake Elmo has been so strong in recent weeks that staff sometimes have had to pump from a well that is known to be contaminated with PFOA, a toxin in the class of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
The problem spans a short period of time, usually on Fridays, when the water is blended with clean water to a degree that it doesn't present a public health threat, according to city officials.
Still, the presence of the contaminant in Lake Elmo's No. 2 well came as a shock when it was found in recent weeks, said a City Council member. The discovery adds another layer of complexity to city efforts to find enough clean drinking water to support a housing boom that has made Lake Elmo the fastest-growing city in the state.
Used in nonstick pans, firefighting foam, carpets and food packaging, the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals were made for years by Maplewood-based 3M Co. and legally dumped into area landfills. The chemicals have since leaked into underground aquifers that provide drinking water to many east metro communities. The manufacturing and use of PFAS chemicals elsewhere by 3M and other companies has contaminated water and soil around the world.
Lake Elmo's No. 2 well, located about a half-mile southwest of Stillwater Area High School, was found to have 9 to 10 parts per trillion of PFOA before being blended with water from uncontaminated wells, according to City Administrator Kristina Handt. Regulations proposed earlier this year by the Environmental Protection Agency would, among other things, limit PFOA contamination to 4 parts per trillion.
Lake Elmo already has issued residential water restrictions this summer, dividing the city into four zones and allowing each zone to water lawns two days a week. Two zones can water on Fridays, and that's when the city has had to draw from the No. 2 well for short periods, Handt said. No irrigation is allowed from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. for anyone connected to the city water system.
The city issued 300 warnings to first-time offenders of watering restrictions, Handt said. Forty second-time offenders were handed $100 fines. Five third-time offenders were given an additional fine of $200, and one city resident was threatened with a water shutoff after four violations. The resident agreed to disconnect their sprinkler system to avoid losing city water service, Handt said.
For now, the city has submitted two grant applications to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to help mitigate the problem.
The first would help the city pay for temporary treatment of water from the No. 2 well. A permanent treatment plant would require a sewer connection and none is available in that area, Handt said.
The second MPCA grant would help pay for a second trunk line to move more water from two uncontaminated wells to the city's water system.
The city considers it likely that it will have to build a water treatment plant, perhaps in Stonegate Park near the city's densest neighborhoods, Handt said.
Benefits from lawsuits
This isn't the first time that Lake Elmo discovered PFAS contamination in its drinking water. Lake Elmo shut down wells and sued 3M when the chemicals were first discovered. The resulting legal settlement in 2019 saw 3M give $2.7 million and 180 acres of farmland to Lake Elmo.
The city also is eligible for some of the $850 million PFAS-contamination settlement, which Minnesota reached with 3M in 2018, for funds to help pay for a treatment plant. Lake Elmo initially didn't consider building a plant because it was thought that the three sites in the northern third of the city — the Nos. 2, 4, and 5 wells — were PFAS-free, Handt said.
City Council Member Jeff Holtz said it was a shock to find contaminants in the No. 2 well, but he's also heard that private well owners in the northern part of the city — north of the known plume of PFAS contaminants — are now testing positive as well.
"We're taking extremely strong measures to reduce demand," Holtz said. "This is not going to be a one-year issue. It's going to be a multiyear issue."
The rapidly growing city's average daily use has skyrocketed in recent years as new homes are built, from 570,000 gallons per day in 2017 to 1.1 million gallons per day last year. Those are average numbers, and the demand can go much higher during dry stretches in the summer when homeowners water lawns and gardens.
The No. 4 and 5 wells can provide 3.5 million gallons of water a day, City Engineer Jack Griffin told the City Council during a workshop session last month, and to meet demand during the busiest times, the city also can draw up to 1 million gallons a day from the No. 2 well.
The city already is pumping more water than the 260 million gallons a year that the state Department of Natural Resources allows, pulling some 400 million gallons from the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer last year. The city's water plan calls for taking 521 million gallons by 2027, Handt said.
The DNR rebuffed the city last year when it asked for more water, citing a long-running dispute over water levels in White Bear Lake. A 2017 Ramsey County District Court order put restrictions on communities, including Lake Elmo, that use water from the same aquifer that feeds the lake. Special legislation passed this year that directed the DNR to provide Lake Elmo with enough water to help it meet its needs.
Hoping the new legislation would ease the permitting process, Handt said the city asked last month for a larger water appropriation, but the DNR hasn't granted it so far.
A DNR spokesperson said Friday the agency considers Lake Elmo a high priority, and the agency is looking for a solution that would satisfy the legislation and court orders restricting the use of waters that supply White Bear Lake. "Our evaluation includes ensuring the request meets Minnesota water law sustainability standards for groundwater use," the DNR statement read.
"It's just disappointing that it hasn't happened," said State Rep. Mark Wiens, R-Lake Elmo, a legislator who helped push the special legislation through the process this year.