5 facts every Minnesotan should know about groundwater based irrigation


Ground Level project director Dave Peters participated in a chat today about the MPR News investigation of unpermitted agricultural irrigation wells, here are five key takeaways.

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5. A big problem

Bottom line on this week’s story: Of about 1,200 irrigation wells drilled in Minnesota between 2008 and 2012, more than 200 appear to be operating without a permit and another 200 or so only recently received a permit.

4. Unknown unknowns

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Millions of gallons of water are being pumped out of the ground that nobody is keeping track of and that in turn makes it harder for the state to understand what’s going on with a resource that is increasingly seen as vulnerable.

3. Permits for almost anyone

Typically a well owner has to ask for the permit after he’s made a significant investment in drilling the well. There’s a fairly new provision in state law that lets someone ask for a preliminary assessment before he invests. That has led the DNR at least in a few cases to tell farmers they may have trouble getting a permit.

2. Unknown rules, small stick for drilling without a permit

MPR News editor Bill Catlin used the comparison with fishing licenses. Everybody knows you need a license to fish and the fine for fishing without one is quite a bit more than the cost of the license. With water use permits, it’s almost the opposite: Knowledge about the system isn’t universal and the cost of violation is pretty low at this point.

1. Farmers aren't alone in thirst for groundwater

Irrigation has been growing and I think has been the impetus for much concern about Minnesota’s groundwater. But it’s definitely not the sole concern. In the Twin Cities, growth has resulted in a lot more wells to supply suburbs and a discussion is brewing over whether more cities should be taking water from the Mississippi River to relieve pressure on aquifers under the metro area. That is bringing up a whole bunch of questions that have nothing to do with farming and irrigation.

As we report on this, it doesn’t take long to see the finger-pointing begin. Everybody can point out how someone else is wasting water -- irrigators, golf courses, people who water lawns, people who don’t use low-flush toilets, industry, municipal water systems that leak. Pick your poison.

Read the full chat here.