Daily Circuit asks: How sustainable is our water use?

Minnesota every year pulls three billion more gallons of water out of the ground than it did the previous year. That doesn't make us California or Arizona, but nonetheless it may not be sustainable, at least not everywhere in the state. So what do we do about it?

That was the thrust this morning of a Daily Circuit conversation host Tom Weber held with two of the state officials charged with answering the question.

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"Our climate is changing," said Jason Moeckel, of the state Department of Natural Resources' division of ecological and water resources. "We’re going from wet springs to droughts. We’ve seen it where we just don’t get rain in July. That’s when we turn on our sprinklers and irrigators. We've got a paradigm shift."

Moeckel oversees some of the changes the DNR is making to alter how people think about this. His part of the Daily Circuit conversation ranged from the ties between groundwater and lakes -- like the shrunken White Bear Lake -- to the price of water and reusing stormwater for golf courses.

But as he left the studio afterward, he said he didn't have time to get to a point he wanted to make -- that Minnesotans use an average of about 75 gallons of water a day in our personal lives. That's a number that could be a lot lower, he said. And in many other places, it is.

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Weber's other guest was Bruce Montgomery, supervisor in the pesticide and fertilizer management division of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. That agency is another big state player in the issue, primarily because of the importance of farming practices to water quality.

"The nitrate issue is the big one on our radar screen right now," Montgomery said. A lot of people are concerned about farm fertilizer contamination of groundwater and many have urged tougher requirements for farmers. "There's a strong interaction between how we manage nitrogen and how we manage water," Montgomery said. But it's complicated.

"We have a long history of working with growers and quite frankly we’ve had tremendous success working with growers once they understand what the issues are." But he acknowledged that the state needs to figure out "where . . . we need to step on the gas"

Moeckel noted that even though Minnesota is a water-rich place, we did come close to a water shortage during the drought of 1988. We use more than we did then, and the swings from wet to dry seem more vigorous recently.

"We’ve got a lot of water," he said. "We just need to learn how to manage it better."