DNR seeks tougher groundwater measurement

Ice and water collect on a field not far from a french-fry plant run by R.D. Offutt Co. south of Park Rapids on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014. (Ann Arbor Miller for MPR)

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources suspects it is getting poor information from some of the water users it issues permits to, so it is asking the Legislature to approve stiffer requirements for measuring water and for the ability to assess tougher penalties for violators.

It wants to require tamper-proof meters on all big wells, and it wants the ability to issue fines that could run to thousands of dollars for water rule violators.

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Those and several other measures are outlined in a formal request to the Legislature for the upcoming session.

The DNR, which has been increasing its efforts to get a handle on the state's groundwater use, estimates that cities, industry, irrigators and other big users pump 475 billion gallons of groundwater from Minnesota wells every year. (Anyone who pumps more than 10,000 gallons a day or 1 million gallons a year needs a DNR permit.) But it says it can't adequately assure the state is using its groundwater sustainably if it doesn't get better information.

"We need accurate information," said Julie Ekman, section manager in the DNR's Ecological and Water Resources Division. "We're concerned we're not getting as accurate information as we need."

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In the report to lawmakers, the DNR says, "Given the large volumes of water used and concerns about overuse, inaccurate information poses significant challenges to sustainable water management."

Some water users simply report the exact same water use every month or every year, the agency says. Better would be the installation of meters that the DNR could inspect, it says.

Giving the DNR authority to levy tougher penalties would also help enforcement, it says. It cites an example of one water user last year refusing the get a permit even after repeated citations:

"In one case, eight citations were issued for pumping without a water appropriation permit. The party involved simply paid the citations and continued to appropriate water illegally because the total cost was minimal ($3,100) relative to the financial benefit of using the water. Without a change to the current enforcement structure, we expect this type of action will continue to occur and possibly increase due to the significant financial benefits gained from water use."

Under the proposal, the DNR would have the authority to force violators to pay thousands of dollars in fines, Ekman said.

On the other hand, the DNR is also asking the Legislature to consider reducing the fees municipalities and others must pay for storm water systems that gather sizable amounts of water. (Storm water is considered public water and thus subject to DNR regulation.) Relaxing those fees would be an incentive for cities to find more imaginative ways to use storm water and thus reduce the demand for groundwater.

On Tuesday, Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, told MPR News that her House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee will discuss the DNR's report at an upcoming hearing. Wagenius said she was happy with it but said she’s not aware of any specific legislation drafted yet to address the DNR’s needs.

For a more detailed look at the request, check out the Freshwater Society's report.