In Cold Spring, it's trout vs Lost Trout in tension over water and beer

Brent Neisinger
Brent Neisinger, Cold Spring's director of environmental control, takes a look at the shallow trout stream located right behind the brewery in Cold Spring, Minn., on March 11, 2014.
Nikki Tundel / MPR News

Inside Cold Spring Brewing, the concrete floors are scattered with pallets of industrial-sized bags of barley, wheat and other beer-making ingredients.

An extremely aromatic room is dedicated to hops for flavoring brews like Bitter Neighbor Black IPA. Elsewhere, more pallets contain the makings for energy drinks, including Monster and Rockstar, which the brewery custom mixes on contract.

What all these ingredients have in common is that in order to become what they are designed to become, they need water, millions of gallons of water. "We are a beverage manufacturing facility and a craft brewery," said Brent Neisinger, Cold Spring's quick-talking director of environmental control, a paper beard net dangling from his neck beneath a modified Van Dyke. "Water is our business in essence."

Cold Spring Creek
This narrow trout stream weaves through the city of Cold Spring, Minn. The stream is fed by the same aquifer that supplies the town brewery's wells.
Nikki Tundel / MPR News

And yet the wells from which the brewery has drawn water for a century--it was founded in 1874--have become a source of contention in this city of 4,000 near St. Cloud. The state's Department of Natural Resources wants Cold Spring Brewing to find a new source of water in order to protect a slender, 1.7-mile-long trout stream that runs through town and along the brewery's property. The stream is fed by the same aquifer that supplies the brewery wells.

The new source will likely come from the city of Cold Spring, which has been digging test wells in search of a clean, self-replenishing pocket of water. The city is eager to help the brewery, which provides 250 local jobs, but so far has been unsuccessful. Eventually, the brewery expects to pay around $200,000 per year for municipal water to replace what it has essentially always gotten for free or very little.

These are the kinds of conundrums people across the state are grappling with as groundwater, once thought to be endlessly bountiful in Minnesota, becomes scarce in some areas, contaminated in others, and in need of reallocation in still others. People are casting a critical eye on the state's aquifers and the land that surrounds them, which means some cities and businesses have to operate differently.

Beneath the Surface, a special Ground Level report

"I've drilled 10 different wells so far trying to find another quality water source. They were all failures."

In the case of Cold Spring, the issue is that as the brewery has expanded and added products like energy drinks, it has taken more water from the ground. A state permit allowed it to take 24 million gallons in 1984, but that cap has been raised twice since. Last year the brewery used 114 million gallons, Neisinger said. That was down slightly from 2012, when Cold Spring added a new, state-of-the-art facility called Third Street Brewhouse.

He said the company has emphasized water conservation and efficiency. "We want to continue to grow the business," he said.

In the state's view, drawing so much well water pulls flow from Cold Spring Creek, increasing sediment and harming a struggling population of trout. The impacts are closely scrutinized now because state legislation passed in 2010 added more protections for ground and surface waters, including trout streams. While existing law dictated that withdrawals from these streams had to be temporary in nature, the legislative change expanded the conditions under which the law applies.

"The aquifer and the stream here are connected," said Dan Lais, a DNR hydrologist and central region district manager who has been working on this case since at least 2009. "That is a picture that I want to make sure I'm painting. They are not disconnected." He emphasized that protecting trout streams is required, but also worthwhile. "They are a very unique resource. They are not something you find anywhere on the landscape. That's partly why they are so highly valued."

Lost Trout Brown Ale
Lost Trout Brown Ale is one of the four craft beers on tap at the Third Street Brewhouse in Cold Spring, Minn., on March 11, 2014.
Nikki Tundel / MPR News

Yet, Lais said, "It's not just about people versus trout or beer versus trout." The state as a whole is trying to manage groundwater more effectively, which means considering not only the needs of cities and businesses, but ecological issues, too. "It's those larger long-term sustainability issues we have to think about," he said. "We can't ignore them. We are trying to manage our groundwater resources in a way that understands how they are connected to other systems. We are looking at a more sustainable model."

It's hard to know exactly what's going on underground, Lais said. It's difficult to gauge how resilient a particular water supply might be, or how it might move. So, when a problem becomes evident above ground, like when a trout stream doesn't have enough water in it, it's important to act. "We're trying to find the tipping point before it happens," he said. "If it's obvious, like you turn on the tap and no water comes out, you have crossed the threshold. We want to discover how to manage the system much before we get to that point."

But in many people's eyes, the tussle over the brewery's water supply has in fact pitted a small trout stream against the fortunes of a major local business. The brewery was given until late February to stop or significantly reduce its well use, but it was granted an extension to December 31, a deadline likely to be extended again. "This is the biggest thing on the company's plate," said Neisinger. "Our brewing water is excellent quality water. That is a big deal to us."

"Water is our business in essence."

It's no coincidence that in 2012, Third Street introduced a beer called Lost Trout Brown Ale, the packaging for which reads: "Legend has it this species flowed aplenty out back in the brewery creek, while others say the trout left town years ago... The legend of abundant trout in the creek seems a bit fishy, but know what isn't? Lost Trout Brown Ale. Truthfully delicious."

THE SEARCH FOR WATER

Paul Hoeschen
Paul Hoeschen is the city of Cold Spring's public works director. He's been digging test wells in search of a quality water source.
Nikki Tundel / MPR News

Nobody has to tell Paul Hoeschen, the city of Cold Spring's public works director, how hard it is to know what's going on underground. He's been digging test wells and sending down piezometers, which measure pressure, all over the area, looking for an aquifer that can provide three things: good water quality that doesn't require a lot of treatment, proximity to the city to mitigate the need for expensive piping and decent recharge so the aquifer doesn't run dry. "I've drilled 10 different wells so far trying to find another quality water source," he said. "They were all failures, for multiple reasons."

Inside his office, which is full of plants and Harley-Davidson memorabilia, the soft-spoken Hoeschen pulled up a map on his computer. He pointed to five areas he has tried and described the shortcomings of each. One looked especially promising until he discovered the aquifer's recharge was akin to the flow of a garden hose into a swimming pool. He has spent more than $100,000 searching for water, largely for the brewery, but partly for the city, too. Once a suitable source is found, Cold Spring may spend millions more installing pipe and building a treatment plant.

There is an element of alchemy to the search process. You can look at geology, read drilling logs, take samples from nearby wells and listen to experts. "A lot of times, you listen to two experts and get two different kinds of advice," Hoeschen said. "You have to decide which to listen to. I don't necessarily fault them. They don't know what's underground. You use the information available and do educated guessing."

"We are trying to be reasonable. The department understands the significance of the brewery to the community."

The city has hunted for water before. In the early 2000s, it closed two wells because of high nitrate levels, which can cause oxygen depletion in infants known as "blue baby syndrome." It found new wells outside of town and addresses lingering nitrate issues by blending water from various sources. Hoeschen hopes the current search will turn up an aquifer without nitrate problems, because they are expensive to fix. "We'll find it," he said of a new well. "It takes an incredible amount of time."

He'll find it because Cold Spring Brewing matters to the city. "They pay a lot of taxes," he said. "They employ a lot of people. They are supporting the surrounding businesses, the hardware store and on and on. When they need water, we spend money to get it to them, maybe a million dollars. But they will have to pay monthly bills to buy that water. Eventually the brewery will reimburse us for it." Hoeschen said the brewery's yearly water bill might be $150,000 to $200,000, depending on whether the DNR closes or reduces the use of the stream-adjacent wells.

"That's a huge extra cost for the city and the brewery," Hoeschen said, though he doesn't harbor ill will toward the stream or the state. "I'm an environmentalist," he said. "The stream needs to be protected. The DNR has to follow their rules. You can't blame the police officer for giving a speeding ticket."

Test site
This water test site is located near the Blue Heron Heights housing development in Cold Spring, Minn.
Nikki Tundel / MPR News

Neisinger hopes the DNR will allow the brewery to continue to tap some well water. "We are trying to negotiate through it to see if we can come to an agreement," he said. "We've coexisted with the trout stream as a nice resource adjacent to the property for 140 years. (The stream's needs) and the needs of an entire city--an industry in a town providing good employment to 250 people--have to coexist on some level."

Meanwhile, the December deadline to find new water looms. Representatives from the city, the brewery and the DNR met last month to discuss progress. At that meeting, said Hoeschen, they talked about extending the deadline, though no time frame was established. He counted the conversation as "a success."

Tawny Press
Tawny Press pours a beer behind the bar at Third Street Brewhouse on March 11, 2014, in Cold Spring, Minn.
Nikki Tundel / MPR News

Lais confirmed there is leeway when it comes to timing. "I would say the December deadline is going to be a challenge," he said. "We are open to entertaining an additional extension there. If the brewery and the city are able to demonstrate just cause and a reasonable plan the department can consider and respond to, there is room for flexibility." In the end, he would like to see the brewery replace its entire well-water supply, though it might not happen right away. "The long-term goal is to find an alternative source of water that does not impact the trout stream."

"We are trying to be reasonable," Lais said. "The department understands the significance of the brewery to the community. The DNR understands the dilemma the city is in trying to find an alternative water source. We need to agree. I do think there is a viable alternative source out there. The biggest question is timing."

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.