Environmental group questions Senate funds for White Bear Lake solution

An environmental group is questioning an $800,000 appropriation included in a Senate spending bill to study and design a system to pipe water into White Bear Lake to restore water levels.

Friends of the Mississippi River says the money duplicates work already being done by the Metropolitan Council and is inappropriate. The $800,000 would come from state lottery money and is part of the $209 million spending bill state senators passed Tuesday night. It would allow for a consultant to study the feasibility and come up with a preliminary design for an augmentation system.

Water levels on the lake have been dropping in recent years, and a U.S. Geological Survey study blamed both weather patterns and heavy groundwater pumping in surrounding suburbs. Property owners have sued the state, saying officials should have done a better job monitoring the situation.

The funding for the White Bear Lake study is not in the House version of the bill, and a conference committee still has to work on reconciling the two versions. The Senate version doesn't specifically name the Mississippi River as the water source, but much of the discussion has revolved around that.

Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River, said his group is working to persuade lawmakers against including the money in the final spending bill.

"Augmentation of White Bear Lake doesn't solve the problem," Clark said. "The problem is the unsustainable use of groundwater for public drinking water supplies in surrounding communities, and that's what needs to be addressed. Every nickel that we spend on this band-aid solution is a nickel we don't have to implement a more sustainable solution that protects those communities and future generations from the depletion of this essential aquifer."

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Clark said the money would also set a "terrible precedent."

But Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, who sponsored the measure, said augmentation should be further explored. He said whatever consultant is hired for the project will go beyond feasibility, which is what the Metropolitan Council is doing. If the project is deemed feasible, engineers would do further work to make the project "shovel ready," he said.

"The lake is in a crisis situation," he said. "We need to look at a number of options in addressing this."

Wiger said the White Bear Area Chamber of Commerce and the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce support the augmentation proposal. Wiger said some lake property owners wanted lawmakers to go even further by appropriating roughly $22 million to complete the project, but he said it's too early for that.

"We want to get it right, we want it to be methodical and also to have something done in conjunction with an overall strategy," he said. "If it's feasible, the intent of this study is that it would be shovel ready. But that's important to point out -- if it's feasible."

Wiger said a Legislative Water Commission to oversee water management and new authority for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to manage groundwater are also included in the bill.