The wells in rural Grant County started running dry on the Fourth of July.

Kathy Bartells, who lives in the country between Norcross and Elbow Lake, says she remembers the moment of panic clearly as her family was visiting for the holiday.

Her neighbor Ted Hlebechuk can't remember another time in his 33 years on the property ever losing access to his water. "My well used to be an artesian well. I could get water without even pumping it," he said. Then, suddenly, he and three neighbors had a dry well.

During last summer's drought — one of the worst in recent memory — private well owners across the Land of 10,000 Lakes filed a record number of complaints with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources about lost access to wells, which provide drinking water for humans and cattle, water for baths and gardens, and hydration for horses.

Unusually dry conditions last summer parched lands and drew down water levels of the deep-lying aquifers that feed these wells.

Soon after, the DNR fielded the most complaints over well interference in 40 years of records. Of the 53 calls the state agency received last year, two dozen resulted in formal complaints requiring an investigation into users of the well's water — including those with and without permission to access it.

In the final reports, requested by the Star Tribune, nine of the claims were validated and two are still being investigated. Under DNR rules, "validated" means the draining of a private well happened due to a nearby high-capacity well that can pump more than 100,000 gallons a day.

In the months after the drought, hydrologists debated the highly technical causes for the dropping water table, but the first culprit people look to is agriculture irrigation.

The reports document difficult circumstances for the private well owners as they waited for their wells to be dug deeper or moved. Some residents stocked up on bottled water or skipped showers and baths.

And those are just the ones reported to the state, officials say.

DNR official Carmelita Nelson says 99% of the conflicts are resolved between farmers and private well-owners without state involvement because these neighbors generally don't want to damage the relationship or cause financial strain.

"Maybe it's their cousin or uncle, so they don't want to file a complaint against them," she said. "Last year was really unique because of the drought."

After just purchasing the home, Trevor Milbrett of rural Eagle Bend in Todd County lost well access for two weeks in summer 2020 and then again last summer during the drought.

The culprit? His neighbors, 1.5 miles away, who were watering crops.

"We had no water at all," said Milbrett, who lives on the property with his wife and four children.

The DNR report found his neighbors' pumping drew down the water level below the depth of Milbrett's pump, which reached roughly 50 feet underground.

Minnesota requires irrigators to receive multiple permits for high-volume users of groundwater. Even still, a permitted agricultural or industrial pumper — what the state calls an "appropriator" — can still be made to pay for lowering a neighbor's well-water.

If the DNR finds well interference occurred, farm irrigators are often left paying thousands of dollars to deepen or replace the affected well, which are sometimes decades old or poorly dug.

Milbrett's neighbor Julie Krause, a former county health director, has farmed for decades with her husband, Norman, in rural Todd County. She said their drawdown of the Milbrett's well and subsequent negotiations with the state — and a well driller — opened up "unbelievable wounds."

"When this happened to us, I said, 'I have undue empathy as a parent of young children to not have water.' Oh, my gosh, I've been there," Krause said.

But, she added, the Milbrett family had relied on a 50-year-old well with outdated equipment. Proofing a well is one's responsibility when living in the country.

"This sometimes gets us in the crosshairs," Krause said. "It makes farmers look like the bad guys. But there's two sides of the story. They have a responsibility. And the farmers have a responsibility."

Krause said the neighbors split the cost of the deeper pump, 50-50.

And while the DNR documents only track private wells, public reservoirs also reported precipitous drops.

In the city of Warren, an irrigator imperiled the town's municipal well.

Mayor Mara Hanel said it wasn't as though people's faucets ran dry, "but we had to have some change happen with a couple farmers because ... there wasn't enough water available to fill everything."

DNR officials say the Warren incident didn't require a report because state law prioritizes municipal wells above all other water uses. In that instance, DNR required a local irrigator to turn off the spigot for three weeks while the town dug a deeper well.

Farmers say they're often an easy mark for angry neighbors.

"When we face a drought like last year — and I'm talking a generational drought, the worst one since 1988 — well-interference odds are going to increase," said Jake Wildman, president of the Irrigators Association of Minnesota.

Unlike states out West, Minnesota operates on the riparian doctrine, meaning that water belongs, largely, to the public. Moreover, state law prioritizes "domestic water supply" (tap water) as a top priority.

Agricultural irrigation ranks third on this list, meaning that irrigators can be left writing checks to vastly improve private wells.

"It'd be like if you banged into somebody's Mazda and you had to buy them a Lamborghini," said Andrew Quam, who farms near Brooks on the border of Red Lake County.

Irrigators often stay within their permit's allotted water usage. But not always.

Quam was cited by the DNR for pumping without a permit and drawing down a neighbor's well. He knew he needed a permit but felt pressed to save his crops under hot, dry conditions.

"It was just extremely frustrating," Quam said, "Because they weren't regulating anyone else's pumping. It was all on me."

Along with other well operators, Quam footed part of the bill — nearly $8,000 — for the neighbor's new well. But he noted that the previous well had been an older, even corroded pipe. Nevertheless, he paid, fearful that the DNR might withhold future permits.

In most cases, new or deeper wells were drilled within days, but sometimes payment resolution takes months and involves pumping surveys and hydrology analysis.

Jody Coleman pumps water on his west-central Minnesota farm for various crops, including corn and wheat. During the heart of last summer's drought, he pumped more than 92 million gallons, which a DNR report found contributed to a drawdown in the aquifer.

Coleman shut down his irrigation for three weeks and paid more than $10,000 for at least three of his neighbors' news wells.

"I do think it's our responsibility if we're going to take water out of the soil that we can't drain people," he said.

But he said he wishes the DNR would require a standard grade for wells, suggesting that antiquated pumps and shallow digs are just as responsible as irrigators for the low water level. Since 1974, more than 500,000 wells of varying depths have been drilled in Minnesota.

"I think the ones that are 75 feet deep, yeah, if we take the water table down, it's probably on us," Coleman said. "But [replacing] the guy who had 30 to 35 feet with a submersible pump? That I kind of don't agree with."

People on both sides of last year's complaints said neighbors generally want to stay neighborly. Coleman, for instance, brought one affected neighbor a tanker of nonpotable water. They all understand, as well, that the drought heightened demand on the shared resource.

Bartells, staring at a "big hole" in her yard where her new well sits, worries last year's saga could foreshadow things to come as water demand grows.

Bartells said she had never seen a year with so much lost water access before. "Everybody was nice about it, but we've had dry years before."