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White Bear Lake settlement hinges on Legislature

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Receding water levels
Docks extend into White Bear Lake, where water levels have steadily decreased over the last decade, in White Bear Lake, Minn. September, 2011.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News 2011

Updated 8 p.m. | Posted 11:19 a.m.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on Monday agreed to support efforts to restore water levels in White Bear Lake to settle a two-year-old lawsuit brought by the White Bear Lake Restoration Association and White Bear Lake Homeowners Association.

But although the settlement gives both sides a solution they support, the Minnesota Legislature must consent to the plan.

Beneath the Surface, a special Ground Level report

The two associations had claimed the DNR allowed nearby cities to pump too much groundwater from the aquifer connected to the lake.

As part of the settlement, the DNR will support legislative proposals to fund the feasibility, design and construction of a system connecting six nearby cities to surface water to relieve pressure on the Prairie du Chien-Jordan Aquifer.

The lawsuit will not be dismissed until such a system is in place, attorneys said in a statement.

"This is a historic change in how we manage water in Minnesota," said attorney Katie Crosby Lehmann, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "We know there are problems underneath that we can't see. There are problems in the groundwater and now it's time to invest in our future and act on those."

DNR Assistant Commissioner Barb Naramore said the settlement will help advance "long-term water sustainability" in the north and east suburbs of the Twin Cities metro area, but she said agency officials continue to disagree with the plaintiffs on what led to the lake's decline. She noted that the lake's level is within the historic range and that agency experts believe climate is the primary driver for low levels, not groundwater pumping.

Still, she said, the steps the settlement calls for are in line with what DNR officials believe should happen in the north and east metro suburbs to ensure sustainable use of groundwater into the future.

"This is a good news story here, because what we have is a situation where parties in a lawsuit have a fundamentally different understanding of the drivers, but what we've been able to do through mediation is identify a settlement that all parties believe meets their needs," Naramore said.

The agreement would still need to be approved by Ramsey County Judge Margaret Marrinan. If approved, the case would be stayed for 36 months while several conditions are being met, Lehmann said.

"This is really just the beginning of our effort," she said. "We're hopeful the state will invest in water and supplying a sustainable water source."

Under the agreement, the cities of Vadnais Heights, White Bear Lake, White Bear Township, Mahtomedi, Shoreview and North St. Paul would be connected to St. Paul's water system, which draws its water from the Mississippi River through a chain of lakes. According to a Metropolitan Council study, that project would cost an estimated $155 million -- at least.

If the Legislature funds a feasibility and design study by August 2016 and funds construction of the project by August 2017, the lawsuit would go away, Lehmann said.

Besides the new water system, the settlement calls for a 17 percent reduction in water use in the north and east metro suburbs and more scrutiny on groundwater withdrawal permits.

Greg McNeely, who chairs the White Bear Lake Restoration Association, said residents and business owners are committed to conservation.

"Low-flow toilets, gray water, anything we can do," he said. "It's a whole awareness, a push, a change in thinking of how we do things."

McNeely added that the lawsuit was never about getting money from the DNR.

"It's just preserving our deepest, cleanest lake in the metropolitan area that a lot of people use, not just people that live on the lake," he said. "Our beach has been closed for seven years. Now we've got some hope. We're going to start moving forward."

Jim Markoe, president of the White Bear Lake Homeowners Association, said he's hopeful the Legislature will pursue the changes laid out in the settlement.

"I think the Legislature understands that this is the way to manage water in the future," he said. "We have to have sustainable surface water supply and that groundwater is the savings account, so to speak, the reserve that we go to in times of need."

But state Rep. Matt Dean, a Republican who represents several cities surrounding the lake, said it isn't yet clear what direction the Legislature will take.

White Bear Lake backers and area legislators have supported a quicker fix to the low water line: piping river water into the lake to fill it up again, especially initially because it will take years before the impact of a water source switch will be seen.

"I've always said that I would measure the success by gallons of water in the lake maintained for a long time," Dean said. "We want to make sure whatever we do, it's not just a question of who picks up the tab but is this thing going to work?"