Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

In Minnesota, thirsty crops put ground water levels at risk

An irrigator waters potato plants
An irrigator waters potato plants near Park Rapids, Minn. Sandy soils in the area allow farmers to carefully control water and grow the shapely, symmetrical potatoes preferred for french fries and chips.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2014

During the record-breaking drought of 2021, wells around the state went dry as farms drew six billion gallons more than their pumping permits allowed. One of the main culprits? The potato industry, which has an incentive to drench fields of sandy soil in parts of Minnesota to achieve perfect looking french fries for fast food chains like McDonalds. But corn and soybeans are thirsty crops too.

The New York Times looked at the Minnesota situation in a recent series on water scarcity across the country. The Star Tribune reported earlier this year that the Department of Natural Resources has asked lawmakers for more regulatory power and higher fines for water users who use too much water.

To help us understand the state of groundwater in Minnesota, MPR News host Cathy Wurzer spoke with Department of Natural Resources Hydrologist Ellen Considine, as well as Bob Shimek. Shimek is a member of Red Lake Nation and currently lives on the White Earth Reservation. He’s an extension educator with White Earth Tribal and Community College and he’s active with water issues.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Well, earlier in the program, we got an update on the ongoing drought in the state. And the news was not good. The dry conditions mean a number of farmers, golf courses, cities, and other entities are pulling water out of the ground. And this is not a new concern. During the record breaking drought of 2021, wells around the state went dry, as farms drew 6 billion gallons more than their pumping permits allowed.

One of the main culprits? The potato industry, which has an incentive to drench fields of sandy soil in parts of Minnesota to achieve perfect-looking French fries for fast food chains, like McDonald's. But corn and soybeans are thirsty crops, too. The New York Times looked at the Minnesota situation in a recent series on water scarcity across the country. The Star Tribune reported earlier this year that the DNR has asked lawmakers for more regulatory power and higher fines for water users who use too much water.

Here to help us understand the state of groundwater in Minnesota is a DNR hydrologist, Ellen Considine. Ellen, thank you for being here.

ELLEN CONSIDINE: Thanks for having me, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Now, the story in The New York Times, very interesting, focused on the drought of 2021. But gosh, the past two summers have also been really, really dry. What's the health of our underground aquifers, where many of us get our water from?

ELLEN CONSIDINE: Yeah, our aquifers-- first, I should say that in Minnesota, we have generally pretty abundant aquifers, especially in the southeast, in the metro area, up through Central Minnesota. So those aquifers have been-- the water in them has been in place over thousands, maybe millions of years. And so a couple of years of drought, those aquifers can withstand, so long as we are careful about how we're using water.

But we are finding that our aquifers in Western Minnesota, these are much smaller aquifers. They refill really slowly. Rain gets to them really slowly. As rainwater percolates in through the overlying sediment, water levels in those aquifers are trending down over the last couple decades.

CATHY WURZER: And we're doing more irrigating with groundwater, is that right?

ELLEN CONSIDINE: We sure are. Yeah, it's very interesting in Minnesota. We're finding that water use, like what we use in our homes, our drinking water use, is pretty stable over the last couple of decades. So we've had a growing population, but we've become more efficient in how we use water. A lot of municipalities have been fixing leaks in their systems. So our drinking water use is remaining pretty stable, even as our population grows. The biggest growth in groundwater in Minnesota has been for ag irrigation.

CATHY WURZER: The New York Times article painted a concerning picture about that, but here, at MPR, gosh, we began reporting nearly 10 years ago about unchecked irrigation and the state's inability to truly understand the impacts on aquifers. It sounds as though a few steps are being taken to deal with the issue, or is that just pessimistic?

ELLEN CONSIDINE: I think that's-- I would characterize that as pessimistic. At the state of Minnesota, we are fortunate. The DNR is responsible for a network of wells, over 1,200 wells, that monitor water levels across the state. So we have, I think, in Minnesota, we have an above average understanding of how our groundwater levels are doing.

CATHY WURZER: Which is good. Which is good.


CATHY WURZER: I'm wondering--

ELLEN CONSIDINE: Yes, that's good.

CATHY WURZER: --how does climate change perhaps play into all of this, going forward?

ELLEN CONSIDINE: Yeah, we've been thinking about that a lot. So we're still kind of pulling the thread on that to figure out what effects climate change will have, but we're already seeing some of the effects. So, first of all, we know that climate change means, on average, our climate is going to be wetter and warmer, right? But climate change also means that we're going to have more extreme weather in between the wet periods.

So on average, Minnesota's expected to be wetter, but in between the wet periods, we will have more prolonged droughts, which probably sounds kind of familiar, as we're in our third year of drought here. We find that as we get into drought, farmers have to use a lot more water to keep their crops alive. And so that's kind of the first effect of climate change that we're seeing, is just in those dry years, a lot more groundwater use.

We're also seeing that the climate of Northern Minnesota is warming faster than the climate of Southern Minnesota. So that means the growing season is a little bit longer in Northern Minnesota. And it's a small change, but it's enough that crops can be grown there that couldn't be grown there before. So water thirsty crops that maybe couldn't be grown in Northern Minnesota decades ago can now be grown there, which means that we're seeing irrigation wells expanding into places that haven't had irrigation much before.

CATHY WURZER: And what is the effect of that, Ellen, on folks who have wells, personal wells, for their drinking water, and smaller cities, for that matter?

ELLEN CONSIDINE: Mm-hmm. So we're finding that high capacity use, those high capacity wells going into places where, as we put it, domestic wells have never had to compete for groundwater, means that sometimes the domestic wells run out of water. And they run out of water because the water level in the aquifer is temporarily lowered because of pumping those high capacity wells. And so we are getting more out of water calls in the last three years than I think we've ever received before. It's been unprecedented.

CATHY WURZER: So I guess the final question would be, how does the DNR balance farmers who have thirsty crops and municipalities and folks who have private wells?

ELLEN CONSIDINE: Well, you put your finger on it. I think the word is "balance." At the DNR, our charge is to balance use and protection of the resource. We are very literally charged with making sure that we're leaving water for future generations. So the message I am-- my soapbox that I like to stand on is to let people know that it's going to take us longer to evaluate those permit applications than it used to take.

When we used to get a lot of permit applications where the aquifers were more abundant, right, in the metro, in Central Minnesota and Southeast Minnesota, it was easier to stamp that permit application and say, yes, you can have this much groundwater. We're finding as we get out into Western Minnesota, Northwest Minnesota, where groundwater is a lot more limited, that it is taking us more time. We really have to do our due diligence to figure out how to balance the use and the protection.

CATHY WURZER: Ellen, there's a lot to talk about here. I appreciate your time. Thank you so much.


CATHY WURZER: Ellen Considine is with the Minnesota DNR. She's a hydrologist. I want to turn to Bob Shimek right now. He's a member of the Red Lake Nation, currently lives on the White Earth Reservation. He's an extension educator with White Earth Tribal and Community College. He's active on water issues. Hey, Bob. How are you? Thanks for joining us.

BOB SHIMEK: Good afternoon, and thanks for the invitation to visit today.

CATHY WURZER: Say, what's your reaction to all this reporting about groundwater use?

BOB SHIMEK: Well, first of all, I think that the issue of water scarcity, the writing has been on the wall for a long, long time. And not just here in Minnesota, not just in the United States, but globally, there's been conflict for water for hundreds, if not thousands, of years in some places. So what we're looking at is nothing new. But what is new is, of course, what The New York Times is telling us about the state of water in our country, or lack thereof.

And I think that there's a signal there, that the agencies that are charged with taking care of these types of issues, what we call the commons-- clean air, clean water, et cetera, they failed. Had everybody been doing their job responsibly, we wouldn't even be having this conversation.

But here we are, and here at White Earth, I've been around here long enough. I remember the first of the legacy wells-- I call them legacy wells-- that went in for potato production back in the late 1960s. And it just grew and it grew, and it expanded and kept going unchecked, unbridled, until here, maybe five or six years ago. The state finally decided, oh, geez, we better create some kind of oversight to make sure there's enough water. Well, whose interests are they looking out for? Over here--

CATHY WURZER: You think some of--

BOB SHIMEK: --we're already--

CATHY WURZER: I'm sorry. Yeah, excuse me. Do you think some of the changes made at the legislature too little, too late, or a good step forward.?

BOB SHIMEK: Well, [LAUGHS] it's a small step forward too late. Put it that way, OK? It has been stated previously, yeah, we have the big aquifers, the big recharge zone. Some aquifers fill more easily than others, and some don't. And I happen to live in an area where I think it's kind of a split decision. But I guess when we talk about whose interests are being looked out for, when they turn the pumps on out here in potato land on the White Earth Indian reservation, the small lakes, the wetlands, the swamps, we see them go dry. OK?

And we get some good rain. They don't pump for a little while. Maybe some water goes back in, but many times, those shallow lakes and small wetlands don't adequately refill until the following spring. So there's a threat to diversity here of the living beings that count on those stable water level to survive.

So that's why I say, when we look at whose interests are being looked out for, yeah, clearly, those of the farmers and the other industrial and municipal users are being looked out for. But what about the rest of our what we call our relatives here in our Native community? So we get the layer of water shortage. We stack on top of--

CATHY WURZER: I'm sorry. I don't have a whole lot of time here. You're an excellent interview here. I'm wondering, the White Earth Nation, where you live-- and you've set out a picture for us as to what happens when some of the pumps go. From your perspective, I know that White Earth has a new rule that says tribal leaders have to sign off on any new wells near the reservation. Is that maybe another step forward and potentially a help here, too?

BOB SHIMEK: Well, you got to understand, the White Earth Nation is, in terms of size, small in terms of the scope of the problem we have. Yeah, we're 820 some thousand acres. And I don't know how many millions or tens of millions of acres Minnesota is, but again, it's a step in the right direction. Hopefully, other tribes, other agencies, take a look at what White Earth is doing and take that high road and say, wait a minute. Let's just slow this thing down here for a minute. Because we have future generations to watch out for.

So, yeah, White Earth, it's good to see. But is it enough? No. We need some kind of statewide change, and we need it fast if there's going to be water for all in the next 10 to 20 to 30 years. Because right now, it's trending the other way.

CATHY WURZER: Bob, I've appreciated your time, and I'm glad you took the time to talk to us. Thank you so much.

BOB SHIMEK: Yeah, you're welcome. Thanks.

CATHY WURZER: Bob Shimek is a Red Lake Nation member and an extension educator with the White Earth Tribal and Community College.

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