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Could Mississippi River, conservation meet water needs of northeast suburbs?

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Jim Graupmann, production division manager with St. Paul Regional Water Services, shows on a relief map how the city pumps water from the Mississippi River through a chain of lakes in the north metro to its water treatment facility Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013 at McCarrons Water Treatment Plant in Maplewood.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Water demands are rising. The aquifer is stressed. Where do you get more water?

That's the core question vexing urban planners. The Twin Cities northeast suburbs are growing rapidly but the aquifer that serves them is shrinking, and so is White Bear Lake.  

Roughly a dozen miles west, though, the Mississippi River flows. It's where St. Paul draws much of its water, and the city's underused water treatment system could serve more cities either by piping water that's ready to drink or by letting cities tap into the raw water and build a new regional treatment plant. 

• MAP: Could St. Paul send water to suburbs? 

The Metropolitan Council is studying those options as part of a larger, longer look at groundwater supplies throughout the Twin Cities. It's also examining whether to tap the Mississippi quickly to fill up White Bear Lake.

"We don't want to see, by 2030, some city's municipal well going dry or other lakes going dry," said Ali Elhassan, manager of water supply planning for the Metropolitan Council who's studying whether St. Paul could help communities in the northeast metro switch from groundwater to surface water. 

"The question I always ask myself is: What's the cost of not having the water? Without water you cannot have anything else."

 Lower, demands, new opportunities

Though it carves its way through the region, less than a third of metro area residents use the billions of gallons of Mississippi River water flowing through the Twin Cities every day. And for suburbs that draw largely from the aquifer, the Mississippi's waters and St. Paul's infrastructure offer an appealing solution. 

Water treatment plant
In the clarifier clear water flows over the top of the basin while sediment settles to the bottom Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013 at McCarrons Water Treatment Plant in Maplewood.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Demands on St. Paul's system have decreased in the past 15 years because of a combination of conservation — think efficient faucets and appliances — and less lawn watering, said Jim Graupmann, production division manager for St. Paul Regional Water Services. 

The city pumps Mississippi River water into its system in Fridley and pipes it to a chain of lakes north of the city. It leaves the lakes and rushes into the treatment plant in two giant pipes, each 7.5 feet in diameter. A small percentage of the water the city pumps into its treatment plant is groundwater, which is used to warm up the river water in the winter and cool it off in the summer.  Most days, only a third of its pumps are needed to deliver drinking water from the Mississippi to 415,000 people in St. Paul and half a dozen suburbs, and water moves through at a slower pace than the plant was designed to handle.

"Our plant actually works better at a little higher capacity than what we've been doing," Graupmann said. "It's so low that our instruments are kind of right on the edge of where they are not working very well."

Hugo is one of the cities where water demand has increased. The city's population has more than doubled in the last decade and could add nearly 10,000 more people by 2040. City officials are waiting to see details on how switching from groundwater to St. Paul's water would work. 

"As long as we can get water that is clean, high quality water and it can be delivered reliably at the same cost that we can deliver it now, we're very interested," said Bryan Bear, Hugo's city administrator.

Conservation trump pumps? 

No one knows yet how much a Mississippi River solution would cost. Council advisers hope to have some preliminary estimates by the time the Legislature convenes early next year.

Water pumps
Large pumps at St. Paul's McCarrons Water Treatment Plant in Maplewood Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Bear wonders if an even cheaper solution is at hand, especially given that half of the city's water is used for lawns and landscaping.

Conservation has been the first step, and Hugo and many of the other cities have watering restrictions to cut back. Hugo has gone a step further to implement a plan to use storm water for irrigation instead of tap water. 

For example, a system that could save an average of 32 million gallons a year will be built this winter to serve the Oneka Ridge Golf Course, he said.

"This is what we see as low-hanging fruit. We don't have to treat that to drinking water standards, we don't have to mothball all our wells, we don't have to figure out how to get water from some distant place," Bear said. "These are things we can do right now, we've already started to do, and we think they're making a difference."

Bear noted the U.S. Geological Survey continues to do research. Survey engineers earlier linked increased pumping in the northeastern suburbs to dropping lake levels. 

Water basins
At McCarrons Water Treatment Plant, water passes through basins where chemicals are added to treat it Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013 in Maplewood.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"We feel like we don't know the whole story yet," said Bear, adding that Hugo officials want more information before they are forced to make huge investments or shut down wells.

The state would likely have to foot part of the bill. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources decides how much groundwater cities can take, and communities in the northeast metro have not been exceeding those allocations. 

Property and business owners on White Bear Lake have accused the DNR in a lawsuit of failing to protect the lake. The judge in the case could require the two sides to come up with an agreement.

Quick fix? 

Switching the northeastern suburbs from groundwater to St. Paul's system would take years, and it would take even longer to see improvement in White Bear Lake's levels. But using the Mississippi as a quicker fix to fill up White Bear Lake already has skeptics.

"White Bear Lake is only kind of a poster child for something that's happening in many other places," said Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, who oversees the House committee that could decide whether to spend state money to solve water problems in the northeast metro.  "To think that there might be the state resources to fill in many lakes I think is rather pie in the sky. The state doesn't have that kind of resource."

The engineering solution, though, is worth studying and has already been done in other Minnesota lakes, said the Met Council's Elhassan. "It's the biggest lake in the northeast metro, it's one of the biggest recreational lakes in the metro area," he said. "Bringing water through augmentation might be the quickest option."

Water treatment plant
McCarrons Water Treatment Plant in Maplewood Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, said he thinks both short-term and long-term solutions for White Bear Lake should be on the table, including filling it up with river water. 

Chamberlain predicts state and local officials will figure out how to pay for it.

"There will be a variety of things, a variety of payment options and it will be negotiated hopefully between all these communities," he said. "Now that said, certainly this is not going to make everybody happy. Some people are going to be very happy, some people will be very upset, but we have to find the best options to manage the water."

• By the numbers: Water supplies in the east metro