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With White Bear as poster child, Minnesota tests new approach to limited water supplies

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Receding water levels
Docks extend into White Bear Lake, where water levels have steadily decreased over the last decade, in White Bear Lake, Minn. September, 2011.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

A new effort involving just about anyone who flushes a toilet from Lino Lakes to Woodbury is about to eclipse the scattered sprinkling limits and water-saving campaigns to rescue a shrinking White Bear Lake.

And that could be just a first step in getting Minnesota residents, businesses and others to think differently about how they use water.

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Beneath the Surface: Minnesota's pending groundwater shortage

Suburbs in the north and east metro are home to the state's first groundwater management area, which could bring drastic changes to the way water is used and distributed. Officials are pushing to address concerns beyond one lake that has seen its shorelines recede and in addition figure out how to ensure there will be enough water to develop and grow into the future. 

"We have built our infrastructure based on the notion that there is unlimited water underground. . . Now we've come to this uh-oh moment. The water underground is not unlimited, so now what?"

The conundrum is foreign to a land with more than 10,000 lakes, but state officials have already identified two other areas in rural Minnesota where they think a tighter grip on water supplies is needed. Depending on the success of the first three efforts, the new thinking could be coming to a faucet near you.

"There's been a pretty significant change within the state regulatory community. The approach is changing and changing for the good," said Jim Stark, director of the Minnesota Water Science Center at the U.S. Geological Survey. The federal agency has been studying the relationship between groundwater and surface water in the giant Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer, which supplies billions of gallons of water each year to residents, golf courses and manufacturing facilities in the Twin Cities metro area.

"It's moving away from case-by-case permitting to something that's more holistic and looking at the total system," Stark said.

The Department of Natural Resources is the state agency charged with ensuring sustainable use of water resources. Until now, the DNR has focused on overseeing only the biggest users. But last year the Legislature provided money for DNR officials to focus on problem areas.

Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, said it turns a 150-year-old way of thinking on its head.

"We have built our infrastructure based on the notion that there is unlimited water underground," said Wagenius, who chairs the committee that pushed the legislation. "We take the water out, use it once, and then put it in big pipes to send down the Mississippi River. Now we've come to this uh-oh moment. The water underground is not unlimited, so now what?"

Rain and snow recharge underground aquifers, but hydrologists and city planners are concerned precipitation isn't keeping up with the pumping. 

In a groundwater management area, the DNR has the authority to put limits on groundwater withdrawals, restrict new pumping and force smaller-scale users to change their habits. Unlike in many western states where long-standing water rights determine who gets the water, Minnesota law is designed to ensure everyone gets a fair share, Wagenius said.

Determining what's fair is the complex task the DNR will work to untangle in the next year. White Bear Lake has dropped by about six feet in the past decade. A U.S. Geological Survey study found reduced precipitation was one factor that led to the decline. But researchers also found evidence of lake water in municipal wells, an indication that groundwater pumping was drawing water away from the lake. Pressure to address the problem also ramped up after lake property owners accused the DNR in a lawsuit of mismanaging the area's groundwater.

"There's been a gradual but steady shift in the source of water being used. That was done without a whole lot of understanding of how much groundwater was actually available and what was happening to it."

Besides the northeast metro area, the DNR is creating groundwater management areas in the Bonanza Valley north of Willmar, where heavy irrigation has affected groundwater supplies, and in the Park Rapids area where hydrologists say agricultural irrigation is linked to the health of the Straight River, a trout stream. The process for those areas starts up this month.

SOLUTIONS FACE SKEPTICISM

The first substantive meeting for the management area covering the north and east metro takes place this evening in Shoreview, where representatives from cities, townships, the Metropolitan Council and the business community will discuss with DNR officials what the management area should look like. 

"We want people to understand what we're doing, the information we're using, why we think change may be needed and also what's the timeline for change," said Jason Moeckel, who oversees monitoring and analysis of water supplies for the DNR. "This requires a lot of coordination."

While the shorelines of White Bear Lake got everyone's attention, the DNR is addressing a larger question. Is this section of the Twin Cities using water in a way that is sustainable?

Moeckel said there's no crisis -- yet. "We're not in a situation where we have to immediately cut our use by 50 percent," he said.

But he said changes will be needed to sustain development. The management area's geographic footprint, as well as which water users would face changes, are yet to be determined. 

"We'd like to maintain our water independence."

"There are lots and lots of details. That's going to be where the devil is, as always," said Keith Buttleman, assistant general manager for the Metropolitan Council's environmental services division. "There are going to be some very difficult choices."

The Metropolitan Council is studying the idea of having suburbs that currently rely on groundwater instead tap into surface water supplies, such as by connecting to St. Paul's system that draws water from the Mississippi River. Both St. Paul and Minneapolis already supply their treated Mississippi River water to many suburbs, and they have the capacity to serve even more cities.

From the river to the ground
In the past half-century, the Twin Cities has shifted from taking nearly all its drinking water from the Mississippi River and other surface sources to drawing more than two-thirds of its water from the ground. (Source: Metropolitan Council.)
Source: Metropolitan Council

Minneapolis could pump and treat about 40 million more gallons a day, and St. Paul officials have said they could supply 30 million more gallons a day. The Metropolitan Council estimates municipal and industrial water demand for the entire metro area is about 450 million gallons per day. 

Years ago, the metro area pulled most of its water from the river. Today, Buttleman said, more than two-thirds comes from groundwater. In some parts of the metro area, groundwater levels have dropped by 40 feet since the 1970s, he said.

"There's been a gradual but steady shift in the source of water being used," he said. "That was done without a whole lot of understanding of how much groundwater was actually available and what was happening to it."

Groundwater is cheaper to treat, and as the metro area grew, tapping groundwater allowed development to expand away from the Mississippi, Minnesota and St. Croix rivers. Having their own wells has given cities a level of autonomy --  a deeply coveted sentiment the suburbs aren't likely to give up without a fight.

"We'd like to maintain our water independence," said Klayton Eckles, Woodbury's public works director.

Tapping into another city's system would mean a different set of rules and less control, he said.

"How much groundwater do we have left? The answer isn't obvious."

"We'd be subject to their pricing structure, their technology and the quality of the water they provide us," he said. "We'd much rather work toward a solution where we can use our own water and manage our own water."

Concerns in Woodbury, about 10 miles south of White Bear Lake, have focused on flow rates at a local trout stream, Eckles said. The city wants to drill more wells to support growth, but officials are concerned that heavy pumping by 3M Co. to keep PFCs and other contaminants out of the drinking water system could reduce supply to other users, he said. 

City officials ask: Could contaminated water 3M is pumping be treated and injected back into the ground instead of going into the river? "We're looking at whether that would be a more sustainable approach," Eckles said.

City officials in other suburbs are floating similar ideas about how to recharge the aquifer. There's also talk of cities combining their utilities and capturing stormwater to irrigate lawns and golf courses. 

One stormwater project for a golf course is already under construction in Hugo, where city administrator Bryan Bear said officials are approaching the city's possible inclusion in the groundwater management area with mixed feelings. 

"Having a groundwater management area if the intention is to understand it more seems like a very good idea that should probably be done and expanded across the entire metropolitan area," he said. 

The concern, he said, lies within the groundwater management statute, which gives the DNR commissioner broad powers. Bear said he's happy the DNR is seeking cities' input, but he said his city will scrutinize any new rules.

"We don't know whether that regulation will be good," he said. "There's a lot of uncertainty." 

Moeckel said there's no reason for cities to fret.

"Each community, each city, each water user needs to look at what's going to work well for them. The really exciting thing is that we do have options," he said, noting that the state generally gets plenty of rain, unlike drier states that have implemented water restrictions. "It's not that we don't have enough water, we just have to figure out how to use it more wisely."

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

Still, the solutions could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and state lawmakers or the courts may ultimately have to decide who pays for them. 

Meanwhile, even with dozens of ideas on the table, figuring out which ones will succeed isn't easy, said Rep. Peter Fischer, DFL-Maplewood, who has pushed groundwater legislation at the Capitol.

 "We need to make sure that as we're addressing one set of problems, we're not making another set of problems worse," he said. "Some things that may work in one area might not work in another area."

The risk of encountering unintended consequences is high, said Craig Johnson, a lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities. If water use restrictions are too drastic, or if solutions drive the price of water up substantially, the future growth and development cities are planning for now might not happen, he said. 

"The unintended consequences could be worse than the water drawdown," he said, adding that the ultimate solution must not "make that area so uncompetitive that the reason the water use drops is because everybody's leaving."

Fischer said one way to avoid that is to include everyone in the discussions and plans -- including those with private wells whose water use currently isn't regulated by the state. 

"If we start treating the people with private wells the same way as everybody else, now everybody's in the same pot together working together instead of having some people being excluded and having tension build between those who have to follow certain rules and those who don't," he said. "And those who don't have to follow certain rules may be part of the problem."

No one knows how much water those private wells are pumping, because only entities that pump more than 10,000 gallons a day or 1 million gallons a year must obtain DNR permits.

The region will have more information in 2014 from the U.S. Geological Survey, which is looking at how to optimize pumping to minimize impacts on White Bear Lake and other surface water. And the Met Council is putting together information on how feasible it would be for parts of the region to tap into the Mississippi.

Bear, Hugo's city administrator, said he's still waiting to hear officials spell out in detail what the problem is. "How much groundwater do we have left?" he asked. "The answer isn't obvious."

But the U.S. Geological Survey's Stark said despite the forthcoming data, there will probably always be some unknowns.

"That shouldn't stand in the way," said Stark, who has been preaching for years the idea that you can't remove large amounts of water from the ground without seeing surface impacts. 

Just like managing a checking account, he said, the region must keep things balanced.

 "On a long-term basis, if you're writing more checks than deposits that are coming in, that's going to be a problem," he said.

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