DNR pushes ahead with its groundwater planning

north and east water use pie chart
Where the groundwater goes in the north and east metro area. Almost two-thirds is for cities.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources makes it clear it will consider limiting future groundwater pumping in the north and east part of the Twin Cities.

It's also promising that it won't take that step without more rigorous monitoring of wells, review of existing water permits and the creation of a transparent regulation process.

That's at the heart of a draft plan developed for the North and East Metro Groundwater Management Area Plan and released this week.

The plan is the result of more than a year's discussion among officials from the DNR, cities, businesses, homeowners and others involved in a groundwater planning process that is new to Minnesota.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

The area affected by the plan includes all of Ramsey and Washington counties, southern Anoka County and the part of Hennepin County east of the Mississippi River. It's one of three places in the state where the DNR is trying to involve local "stakeholders" in appreciating that groundwater -- the source of water for most Minnesota households -- is a limited resource that is in danger of being pumped at unsustainable levels.

The draft plan will go through review before it is made final. But it lays out the challenge: About 30 billion gallons of water gets pumped out of the ground every year on average, and the amount is expected to increase by 20 percent over the next 15 years. In the meantime, trout streams and wetlands in the area are under pressure, contamination in groundwater is a concern and water levels in most of the observation wells the state uses have been going down.

The draft says there are 259 permitted wells in the area. (A permit is required if you pump more than 10,000 gallons a day or a million gallons a year; homeowners typically do not need a permit for personal-use wells.) Of those, 16 used more than their permits allowed in 2012. For three of the permitted users, in fact, the average amount pumped over five years exceeded the permit level.

Most of the water pumped in the area goes into city water systems, and demand on those systems varies. The draft plan notes that almost half the cities in the area fail to meet a metro area goal that residents demand no more than 75 gallons per day per capita.

The DNR is responsible for the state's groundwater and for issuing permits to tap it. The draft plan calls for it in the next several years to study lakes and streams more thoroughly and to add three wells to its network of 60 to monitor groundwater levels. It will create a new data system to ensure better public access to water information, and it will determine how much water can be pumped before sustainability is threatened.

"Where needed, (the) DNR will limit current and future appropriations," the plan says. In the next five years, the DNR will evaluate all the permits it has issued and adjust what is allowed if it finds the pumping threatens the aquifer's sustainability.

Jason Moeckel, who oversees the groundwater management effort at the DNR, said officials "may find that an amount permitted is more than can be pumped. But that is not the case yet."

Although the state's new approach to groundwater management stresses the involvement of lots of people and organizations with a stake in pumping water, Moeckel was clear to say that the DNR maintains ultimate authority.

What the new approach promises, he said, is that all stakeholders will know more about how sustainability is being defined and how the state is moving to maintain the ability to maintain groundwater levels.