Concerned that large swine feedlots in southern Minnesota are pumping millions of gallons of groundwater without proper permits, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has launched a compliance sweep of the region’s growing livestock industry.

A team of hydrologists is focusing first on Dodge, Freeborn and Blue Earth counties because of indications that some hog farmers are surpassing the state’s 1 million-gallon-a-year threshold without holding the required permits, according to Dan Girolamo, a DNR supervisor in Waterville.

“We want to manage the water resource so it doesn’t become a huge problem in the future,” Girolamo said. “There are people increasing the demand on the aquifers, without question.”

Girolamo emphasized that groundwater in his 16-county district of southern Minnesota is plentiful. But an increase in crop irrigation, expanded pumping by municipalities and an increase in the number of water-intensive feedlots has heightened the agency’s interest in monitoring heavy users.

The initiative comes at a time when DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr has expressed wider concerns that Minnesota needs to do a better job of conserving and protecting groundwater against a backdrop of growing farm and municipal demands.

Dodge County alone is home to more than 220 swine feedlots, including many that confine up to 2,400 finishing pigs at a time. Based on estimates used by the DNR, these operations would consume from 2.6 million to 3.5 million gallons of water a year. Heading into the compliance sweep, only six Dodge County feedlots currently hold water appropriation permits, Girolamo said.

The district that Girolamo oversees incorporates the two rows of counties that sit north of the Iowa border and includes Mower County, home of Hormel Foods, which processes thousands of hogs every year.

Girolamo’s team roughly doubled in size recently with the hiring of three new hydrologists. The compliance sweep is the group’s first big project. “We’re getting geared up to keep them busy and address permit compliance,” Girolamo said.

Dropping well level

Dale Schmeling, a resident of rural Westfield Township in southern Dodge County, said Girolamo’s team opened an investigation last week into why the water level in his private well has been dropping since the early 2000s. In that time, he said, feedlot operators have built new facilities for 34,600 hogs within a 2-mile radius of his house.

“Our well guy says it’s because of the pigs,” Schmeling said.

Girolamo said the compliance sweep will include addressing complaints filed by citizens who believe their drinking wells are drying up because of surrounding hog operations.

Girolamo said the DNR started to lose track of water-appropriation permits in southern Minnesota’s feedlot industry in 2004, when the state abandoned a system that required each feedlot to obtain an individual water permit regardless of volume. That approach was replaced by a system of “general” permitting for users of 1 million to 5 million gallons a year.

The compliance problem arose because a staffing crunch at the agency didn’t allow for proper follow-up, Girolamo said. Instead, compliance and permitting efforts were focused on crop irrigators and municipalities — by far the area’s biggest users of groundwater.

As a result, many feedlots that formerly had individual DNR water-use permits are no longer in the system, Girolamo said. In Blue Earth County, for example, roughly 100 hog feedlots held individual water-appropriation permits in 2004. Today, even though the county is Minnesota’s third-largest hog producer and has grown in hog numbers by 13 percent over the past decade, only two feedlots in the county currently hold general water-appropriation permits, Girolamo said.

He said the agency is not interested in penalizing operators, just getting them permitted properly.

“We’ll be asking them to get a new permit,” he said. “We’d like to get everyone compliant.”

Girolamo said the biggest driver for the compliance sweep is the DNR’s new emphasis on tracking water use “for the big picture.” The general permits require feedlot operators to report their annual water usage, he said.

The initiative will also attempt to re-evaluate how much water is used to raise hogs in confinement. In Dodge County, Girolamo said, some feedlot owners want water-use estimates lowered to account for new conservation efforts in the industry. If a hog operation used less than 1 million gallons of water in a year, it wouldn’t be required to get a permit.