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When Drought Gripped Minnesota in 2021, Farmers Increased Water Usage



The drought that gripped Minnesota in the summer of 2021 was one of the worst on record. Day after day a blazing sun shriveled leaves, dried up waterfalls and turned ponds to puddles.

In a state known for its 10,000 lakes, many people could do little except hope for rain.

But big farmers had another option. They cranked up their powerful irrigation wells, drenching their fields with so much water that they collectively pumped at least 6.1 billion gallons more groundwater than allowed under state permits. Nearly a third of the overuse happened on land affiliated with one company, R.D. Offutt Farms.

The water helped R.D. Offutt to achieve its objective of creating long, smooth potatoes that effortlessly sail through the slicers at frozen food processors so Americans could have one of their favorite foods: McDonald’s French fries.

It takes a lot of water to make a perfect fry.

By turning on the taps in the depths of drought, R.D. Offutt and other farmers in the state — where thousands of wells irrigate potatoes and other water-intensive crops like corn, soybeans and sugar beets — blew through limits designed to protect aquifers that supply drinking water to millions of people.

For some Minnesotans, it significantly worsened the drought’s effects. And it exposed how dependent much of the state has become on aquifers that are fragile and often poorly understood.

A bar chart showing Minnesota’s groundwater use for irrigation over time. The x-axis extends from 1988 to 2021. The bars show a general upward trend, peaking in the drought year of 2021 at above 150 billion gallons.

Irrigation Pumping Soared

Groundwater use spiked during the

2021 drought. Over 6 billion gallons

were drawn beyond permitted amounts.

Irrigation Pumping Soared

Groundwater use spiked during the 2021

drought. Over 6 billion gallons were

drawn beyond permitted amounts.

Irrigation Pumping Soared

Groundwater use spiked during

the 2021 drought. Over 6 billion

gallons were drawn beyond

permitted amounts.

Irrigation Pumping Soared

Groundwater use spiked during

the 2021 drought. Over 6 billion

gallons were drawn beyond

permitted amounts.

Irrigation Pumping Soared

Groundwater use spiked during

the 2021 drought. Over 6 billion

gallons were drawn beyond

permitted amounts.

Source: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

The increasing overuse of groundwater is a nationwide problem, a New York Times data investigation found, with big cities and industrial farms alike draining aquifers at alarming rates. The practice threatens not only drinking water supplies for millions of Americans but also the nation’s status as a leading exporter of food.

In Minnesota, watersheds started to dry as the heavy irrigation in 2021 lowered aquifer levels. Trout streams warmed when huge wells siphoned away the cooler underground water that normally fed the streams, scientists said, threatening fish populations. And in parts of Minnesota, people reported backyard wells drying up, sometimes leaving kitchen faucets to cough and sputter as though they were gasping.

Officials in Warren, Minn., partly surrounded by sugar beet fields, had to physically lower the pump at the town’s well by 63 feet in order to keep providing drinking water to more than 1,500 residents, including those in a hospital and nursing home. One older woman outside Warren said the only way she could get water after her own well went dry was to drive her riding mower to a neighbor’s house to fill water bottles. State officials wound up suspending four irrigation permits in the area.

In Backus, Minn., Mike Tauber, whose forested land abuts potato fields affiliated with R.D. Offutt, was shocked to find dried-up, exposed banks along a pond so big he had nicknamed it “Super Pond.” And in the northwestern part of the state, members of the White Earth Nation worried that farmers’ irrigation wells were draining culturally significant bodies of water.

Aerial view of a person in a light blue kayak paddling along a river that winds to the horizon, bordered by trees on both sides.

Trout fishermen worry that the Straight River is warming as irrigation wells pump out cooler groundwater that would normally feed the river.

A couple wearing plaid shirts and mosquito nets walks through the woods. The man, to the rear, is carrying a black dog with its tongue out.

Mike Tauber with his wife and their dog near the family home.

An aerial view of brown cropland, marked with rows of dirt and a series of semicircular arcs made by tractor tires, runs up against a dense, green forest.

The Taubers’ forest abuts an irrigated potato field.

“I understand farmers have got to make a living, too, but at the same time they’ve got to take other human beings into consideration,” said Trevor Milbrett, of Eagle Bend, Minn., who sometimes drove his pregnant wife and toddler to his parent’s house for showers and supper that summer because nearby irrigation had left him with no water.

Potato farming is not the only big agricultural user of groundwater in Minnesota. The state is one of the nation’s top producers of corn, another heavily irrigated crop. But potato farming in particular shows how a host of seemingly unrelated factors — the demands of industrial French fry production, for example, or the fact that people will spend more money for fries with fewer unappetizing dark spots — can send water use soaring.

In a written statement, Warren Warmbold, vice president of R.D. Offutt Farms, said, “The story of 2021 was either going to be about water overages or food shortages.” Along with other farmers, he said, “we had to make difficult decisions around water use in order to save our crops and keep the food supply secure and affordable.”

Mr. Warmbold also said that, over the years, R.D. Offutt had used less water than its permits allocated 97 percent of the time. “We don’t take these decisions lightly,” he wrote.

The practice of irrigating mainly with groundwater, once concentrated in America’s arid West, is marching eastward across the country even as it declines in many Western states, where aquifers are drying up.

A map of the continental United States, showing where irrigated acres of land saw net increases or decreases between 1997 and 2017. Net decreases are concentrated in the west, and net increases in the Midwest and elsewhere.

Irrigation Heads East


Irrigation Heads East


Irrigation Heads East


Irrigation Heads East


Irrigation Heads East


Irrigation Heads East


Irrigation Heads East


Source: USDA | Irrigated acres from any water source

Minnesota in the early 1960s had fewer than 50 permits for irrigation wells. By 2022, there were over 7,000 of them.

And, like many other states, Minnesota uses an honor system for reporting water use from wells like these. Farmers self-report their usage annually.

This year, Minnesota lawmakers moved to rein in irrigators by increasing fines for pumping too much water, but it’s unclear whether regulators will use the new tools. Officials said that in 2021, they were hesitant to fine farmers who were already struggling with crop loss.

What happened in Minnesota offers a warning to the rest of the country. Even in a state with a culture tied to watery abundance, groundwater overuse in some areas quickly had dire consequences. And it remains unclear whether the steps taken to prevent a repeat are strong enough.

“We have this really intensive groundwater use, expanding to aquifers we don’t yet understand very well, in places where domestic wells have never had to compete for groundwater,” said Ellen Considine, a hydrologist supervisor with the state’s Department of Natural Resources. As a result, she said, “we may not be leaving enough groundwater for future generations.”

Thirsty Farmland

To understand why big farms use so much water, consider potato aesthetics.

People don’t want French fries that just taste good, they want them to look good, too. And since the late 1960s, the United States Department of Agriculture has set voluntary grading standards for potatoes and French fries, essentially defining what gives them value.

One important variable is French fry coloring: Those with dark markings have little chance at being called “Grade A” fries.

For farmers, that means making sure potatoes don’t have lumps, which can cause uneven coloring. Growing potatoes in fluffy, sandy soil allows them to expand into smoother shapes.

Two potatoes, side by side, illustrate potato shapes. The potato on the left is smooth and oblong. The potato on the right is shaped more like a bowling pin..

Shutterstock; USDA

Watering is important, too. A potato can end up shaped like a bowling pin if it doesn’t get consistent water. That matters to growers because an oblong spud can produce more fries, and more profit.

Demand for potatoes is soaring with the spread of fast food restaurants around the world. More than a third of America’s potatoes end up in the frozen market in grocery stores or restaurants, most of them as French fries, according to the Department of Agriculture. Or they end up on lunch trays at schools, another big buyer of fries.

Close-up of a person scooping fries into a large, red-and-yellow striped serving bucket labeled “Fresh French Fries.”

The ideal: long, golden, uniform fries

Carlos Gonzalez/Star Tribune, via Getty Images

Three people stand in a potato field among long, low mounds of dirt that extend into the distance. Two are wearing a hat and sunglasses and one is leaning his forearm on a shovel.

R.D. Offutt employees in a potato field near Park Rapids, Minn.

In Minnesota, R.D. Offutt, which has its headquarters in North Dakota and is one of the largest potato growers in America, has planted crops on thousands of acres of land where a timber company once harvested wood from a lush pine forest. R.D. Offutt converted the land to farming to take advantage of the sandy, potato-friendly soil beneath the trees.

R.D. Offutt executives said they had put into place more efficient irrigation methods in recent years. And the company said it has partnered with scientists to develop new varieties of potatoes that aren’t as water-intensive.

In the summer of 2021, faced with the worst drought in decades, fields linked to R.D. Offutt were doused with water from more than 500 wells. R.D. Offutt supplies potatoes to companies that make fries for fast-food restaurants, including McDonald’s. It owns fields but also leases land to and from other farmers as part of its practice of rotating potatoes with other crops every few years.

In the drought year, about one-third of R.D. Offutt’s fields were planted with potatoes, executives said. But growing any crops in the sandy, porous soil requires significantly more water.

A gloved hand holds a small, freshly picked plant, covered in dirt and roots. In the background is a brown field with rows of mounded soil.

A potato plant on an R.D. Offutt farm near Park Rapids.

An aerial view of cropland in a repeating circular pattern that characterizes center-pivot irrigation systems.

Center-pivot irrigation equipment near the White Earth reservation.

A woman with long hair and colorful striped skirt lifts a smiling child in the air at the edge of a marshy body of water extending to the horizon.

A lake where White Earth members harvest wild rice.

It’s not just industrial farms that gulp groundwater. Cities, power plants, factories and golf courses do, too. (In 2021 in Minnesota, a company digging an oil pipeline also breached an aquifer, sending groundwater gushing.) But irrigation is consistently one of the biggest users, and the agricultural industry’s political might, along with farming’s revered place in the American self-image, means that unsustainable irrigation practices have expanded despite the risk to agriculture itself.

The phenomenon can be seen from the window of any airplane flying over America’s flatlands. Those circles of green on the land below are the work of immense “center pivot” irrigation sprinklers that often use groundwater, tapping wells that are sometimes hundreds of feet deep.

Minnesota tries to put the brakes on excessive groundwater use with permits that consider how wells affect the area around them. But the system isn’t perfect.

“Think of our water supply as a giant milkshake glass and each well is a straw in the glass,” said Robert Glennon, author of the book “Water Follies,” who has studied agriculture’s effect on groundwater. “What most states permit is a limitless number of straws in the glass.”

500 Gallons a Minute

Many of the wells linked to R.D. Offutt and those of other farmers tap the Pineland Sands Aquifer, which is huge but also delicate, partly because it is shallow in places. Extracting water from the shallow spots can sometimes affect surface water in the region, lowering the levels of rivers or other bodies of water.

“If you just take a little bit, it’s very sensitive,” said John Nieber, an agricultural engineering and hydrology professor at the University of Minnesota. Pumping out even relatively small amounts from aquifers can lower surface water if snowmelt and rain aren’t replenishing them quickly enough.

Early indications suggest the Pineland Sands Aquifer may have recovered from the setbacks in 2021, and R.D. Offutt says its studies show “imperceptible” changes in water levels in past years. Still, state officials said that straining an aquifer year after year can have wide-reaching effects, drying out wetlands and streams.

The fact that so many Minnesotans statewide were forced to scramble for groundwater after just one summer of intense drought highlights the fragility of aquifers even in parts of the country not usually thought of as water-stressed. This year parts of Minnesota are again experiencing a drought, prompting new complaints that irrigation is drying out residents’ wells.

Many of the state’s irrigation wells are concentrated in areas of sandy soil.

A map of Minnesota uses blue dots to show the location of irrigation wells in relation to areas of sandy soil, which are depicted with a light brown color. The wells are clustered mostly around the middle of the state and south of the Twin Cities. The location of the White Earth Reservation is also shown, in the upper left portion of the map.

Source: Minnesota Geological Survey

Dr. Nieber is partnering with the White Earth Nation to study irrigation’s effects on the Pineland Sands Aquifer. The southeast corner of the reservation sits atop the aquifer and is adjacent to dozens of wells operated by R.D. Offutt as well as other farmers, according to the tribe.

For years, White Earth members have complained about fertilizers and pesticides used by farmers. Among their concerns is that both the chemicals and the pumping for irrigation threaten tribal lakes and streams where White Earth members fish and harvest wild rice, which is culturally significant and an important revenue source.

Frustrated by what members see as an inadequate response by the state to address the effects of irrigated farming, this year the White Earth passed a measure that requires tribal officials to sign off on any new irrigation wells that farmers want to install within five miles of the reservation, a swath of territory where the White Earth says it has hunting and fishing rights.

The measure may invite legal challenges, leaders acknowledged, but is intended to send a message that more irrigation is not welcome. “We are pushing back,” said Jamie Konopacky, a White Earth attorney.

A dozen or so people stand on a dirt path,  surrounded by wild grasses and shrubbery, facing to the right and singing. Several are dressed in long skirts with vivid stripes near the hem.

White Earth community members prayed for bountiful fish and rice.

A man in a plaid shirt leans over a pipe in the ground, checking a water gauge. Behind him a brown field and a large industrial sprinkler extends into the distance.

Austin Tersteeg’s corn and soybean irrigation dried out neighbors’ wells.

During the summer drought in 2021, complaints about irrigation were filed with the Department of Natural Resources faster than inspectors could keep up with them. Many came from poorer families or older people with limited income, according to a review of the complaints and interviews with residents who filed them.

In Red Lake County, Allan Armstrong said he went without water for a month at his home. But Mr. Armstrong also faced another crisis: Nearby, his parents had also lost water in their well at a time when his father was receiving hospice care at home.

“He was panicking and flipping out and running out of water,” Mr. Armstrong said of his father.

His complaint to the state expressed the urgency. “We need water now!” Mr. Armstrong wrote.

About three miles from Mr. Armstrong’s home, a neighboring farm owned by the Tersteeg family had installed a new 500-gallon-a-minute well.

The Tersteegs were trying to keep their corn and soybeans from withering. Their water use was well within their annual permitted limit, but still enough to dry out Mr. Armstrong’s smaller well and also contribute to problems for three other families’ wells.

The state required the Tersteegs to pay more than $10,000 to dig a new well for Mr. Armstrong.

Austin Tersteeg said farmers were sometimes forced to pay to replace old wells that, sooner or later, would need replacing anyway. Footing the bill for a brand new well, he said, “far exceeds the quantity and quality of water that they previously had there.”

He has asked the state to reimburse him for what he spent on his neighbors’ wells under a program to help farmers who needed more watering during the drought.

The Tersteeg farm’s headquarters is just outside Erskine, which, like many communities in Minnesota, has for decades held an annual water carnival. Mr. Tersteeg said he was confident that his farmland would be fine for generations, despite the warning signs.

“My grandkids will be irrigating from these wells,” he said. “There’s a lot of water in this area.”

His farm is awaiting approval for two new state permits for irrigation wells.

A person holding a fishing rod, partly silhouetted from behind in dusky blue light, stands nearly hip deep at the edge of a river beneath a dramatic evening sky and amid lush green trees along the water’s edge.

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