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The Buffalo Aquifer

Below is a map of
the Buffalo Aquifer.
Why Create an Aquifer Management Plan?

There are two main objectives of a Management Plan for the Buffalo Aquifer:

  1. Assure a long-term drought water supply for Moorhead, Dilworth and all of Clay County
  2. Assure sustainable water resources use for Moorhead, Dilworth, and all of Clay County


Moorhead Public Service has been actively involved in water supply planning for drought conditions on the Red River.  Moorhead depends on the Red River as its primary water supply.  The Buffalo and Moorhead Aquifers are our secondary supplies. A large capital investment was made by Moorhead to construct a new water treatment plant in 1995.  The new water plant allows Moorhead to maximize the use of the Red River of the North, while reserving the Buffalo Aquifer for contamination events on the river and for water supply during a long-term drought. The new water plant has allowed the utility to reduce pumping from the Buffalo Aquifer by nearly 60 percent.


Moorhead has used the Buffalo Aquifer as a water supply since 1948. More than 20,000 million gallons of water has been pumped from the aquifer since than.  The USGS and MGS have estimated that the Buffalo Aquifer has more than 200,000 million gallons in storage.  The aquifer can yield 10-20 percent of that volume to pumping, if pumping is spread along the length of the aquifer. 


The water levels in the Buffalo Aquifer have risen by 15 feet since the construction of the new water plant.  It is the combination of the impacts of the current wet cycle and the reduction in the volume of water pumped that has returned the aquifer water levels to 1950's levels.  Since 1995 we have reduced withdrawals from the aquifer a total of 5,000 million gallons.  That water remains in storage in the aquifer.  It is nearly 2/3 the volume of water Moorhead needs to supplement the Red River in a ten year 1930's type drought.  


Figure 4 shows groundwater levels in the Buffalo Aquifer near our Hwy 10 wells.  The figure illustrates the impact of pumping on water levels. 


Figure 4

Drought Water Supply:

The Red River stopped flowing for extended periods during the 1930's drought.  The Red River Valley will experience similar prolonged periods of drought in the future.  Water utilities in the Red River Valley are studying alternatives for water supply for this type of event. Two potential water supply sources have been evaluated by Moorhead to meet water demands during an extended drought. The alternatives include the Red River Valley Water Supply Project and the expansion of facilities in the Buffalo Aquifer.


The lowest cost drought water supply alternative for Moorhead is additional development of the Buffalo Aquifer within Clay County.  This alternative would bring groundwater from the aquifer south of I-94.  A series of wells would be developed around and south of the Sabin area.  This alternative will require the construction of a new pipeline and pumping station that would deliver the water to the treatment plant.  Construction of this project can be accomplished in phases and delayed until the region is experiencing drought conditions.


Water supply studies using population projections for 2050 estimated the total water shortages for Moorhead during a ten year 1930's type drought would be 7,270 million gallons.  Taking this volume of water from our existing well fields could excessively lower the water levels in the area of our wells.  Additional well fields will need to be developed in the southern portion of the aquifer to spread out the impacts of withdrawing this volume of water.


Moorhead has three groundwater appropriation permits from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.  Two of the permits are for the Buffalo Aquifer and the third is for the Moorhead Aquifer.  The total annual permitted volume for the permits is 3,318 million gallons per year.  The maximum yearly shortage during a 1930's type drought would have occurred under 1936 river flow conditions.  The maximum estimated annual shortage under those conditions for Moorhead would be 1,830 million gallons.  Our existing MNDNR appropriations are twice the volume of water needed to meet the maximum demand of a 1930's type drought.


The conjunctive use of surface water and groundwater has put Moorhead in the position of being able to meet future water demands.  The Red River has the capacity to supply water for Moorhead, except during a severe drought.  The Red River should be able to supply more than half the water needs during a 1930's type drought.  Moorhead has groundwater appropriations permits that exceed our needs during a drought. The Buffalo Aquifer has sufficient water in storage to meet our water needs during a 1930's type drought.  The aquifer should be capable of supplying the water needed of Moorhead and other users during a 1930's drought.  Preserving the water in the Buffalo Aquifer gives the utility the capability to provide water to its customers during the next drought.

 Aquifer Management Plan

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is the state agency that oversees water appropriation permits.  The normal process for expanding water supplies requires users to evaluate their water needs for the next ten years.  They must then apply for changes in their appropriations with the DNR.  This process does not work when we are requesting the appropriations for a long-term drought water supply, because we cannot predict when a drought will occur in the area.


We began discussions with the DNR in 2007 as to how we can secure a long-term drought water supply.  DNR rule 810 allows for the development of an aquifer management plan to address the uses and potential conflicts which can occur in areas with limited water supplies.  DNR staff suggested that we consider this option for securing the availability of water supply during a long-term drought.


In August of 2007 the Moorhead Public Service Commission formally requested the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Water Division cooperate with and assist Moorhead, other local units of government, and land owners in developing a management plan for the Buffalo Aquifer within Clay County. The Commission requested assurances from the MN DNR that water would be allocated and permitted from the Buffalo Aquifer to Moorhead in the event of a long-term drought. The purpose of the plan would be to protect and reserve the groundwater resources of the Buffalo Aquifer for use as the regions drought water supply.  A copy of the letter dated August 28, 2007 is included.


MPS requested that the DNR define the requirements that must be met when developing an aquifer management plan.  MPS staff met with the DNR in January of 2009 to discuss our vision of an aquifer management plan and long-term drought water supply.  In February 2009, the DNR staff with other state agency staff developed and provided a draft action plan and schedule to MPS that would meet their rules requirements and MPS objectives.


The action plan for the development of an aquifer management plan is scheduled to be completed over the next three years.  The action plan includes data collection, monitoring, pump testing, development an aquifer model and the development of the Buffalo Aquifer Management Plan with public review and adoption


The aquifer management plan would establish priorities for water use within the area, allocate water reserves within the aquifer to the various user types, and establish triggers for implementation of the plan and its water use priorities. The Moorhead Water Emergency and Conservation Plan would apply to the resource during implementation of the drought water supply.


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