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State filling in old wells

A project to plug non-functional and abandoned water wells in the Medora Ranger District is under review.

About 23 wells are within the proposal for plugging and reclamation, located within Slope, Golden Valley and Billings counties.

The well project is part of an initiative due to North Dakota state law which requires old and abandoned wells to be plugged by landowners.

"Since 1997 we've had a watershed program on Dakota Prairie Grasslands, and going in and plugging these old wells that were part of the early homestead days and some of the non-functional wells on the grasslands," said Kevin Sullivan, project leader. "We do it to protect the aquifer from any contamination."

An abandoned well, as interpreted by the N.D. Department of Health, includes those wells "that cannot be operated in the manner for which it was intended, or which has fallen into disrepair and no longer meets the state standards for well construction," according to Forest Service information.

Sullivan said most of the wells are non-functional.

"There have been some range water wells that we've plugged in the past where we've drilled a new well right next to it to prevent anyone from throwing anything down in there to contaminate the aquifer," he said.

Sullivan said since the program started in 1997, about 200 wells have been plugged on the grasslands.

The process includes filling the well with chips that form into a hard clay, preventing anything from getting into the aquifer.

Medora Ranger District Ranger Ron Jablonski said well plugging is a process that happens every year.

"The effort is to make sure folks have good water, and water not only for the recreating public but for the livestock and all the other uses on the grasslands," he said.

In addition to plugging the wells, the workers contracted by the Forest Service clean up old homestead sites, leaving the foundations for visitors.

"A lot of them have old wire and old wood," Sullivan said. "We have our archeologists go out first and clear these sites for historical items before we go out there."

This year, 13 wells were plugged on the McKenzie Ranger District. Sullivan said only half the wells currently being proposed will be done next year, with the other half being done the following year.

"We've been averaging 10 to 15 wells per year that we've been plugging," Sullivan said. "We usually go out in May, June and July before it gets too hot, then fire danger is a factor."

The wells average about 100 to 200 feet deep, Sullivan said, and old homestead wells are shallower, averaging anywhere from 50 to 100 feet deep.

"In the old homestead days people had about 160 acres, and we figure there was a well for each quarter section," Sullivan said.

Older wells, Jablonski said, need to be "dealt with" and not ignored.

Officials are taking input on the project until Wednesday. Submit oral comments to Sullivan at 701-842-2393, and written comments to Jablonski at 99 23rd Ave. West, Suite B, Dickinson, N.D. 58601.