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DNR: Plan to ship Minnesota groundwater to the southwest won’t float

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A stunning, unexpected proposal to pump groundwater from Dakota County and ship it to the southwestern United States is drawing criticism, and state conservation officials on Friday all but said it will not happen.

Empire Builder Investments, a Lakeville-based company, hopes to drill into one of the oldest aquifers in Minnesota, take out 500 million gallons of groundwater a year and ship it by rail to drought-affected states.

The firm applied for a preliminary well assessment from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which regulates the state’s groundwater. The company wants to put two wells on a 6.2-acre property in Randolph.

With perhaps surprising clarity, DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said in a statement that based on its review of the initial request, there is “virtually no scenario where the DNR would grant” Empire Builder’s wish.

The DNR said it didn’t believe state statutes would allow so much water to be pumped from the Mt. Simon-Hinckley aquifer for such a reason. The aquifer in south-central Minnesota is one of the deepest and oldest in the state. State restrictions limit its pumping only for drinking water, and only when there’s no other feasible source.

Water advocates and local officials were more emphatic in expressing their concerns.

Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, called tapping the aquifer and shipping out the water a potentially huge loss of a precious asset.

"If they're going to withdraw the water out of the Mississippi River that's flowing south and has many millions of gallons spilling every day, that would be different,” he said.

"It strikes me as short-sighted, particularly in view of a report we just got a few weeks ago that shows we have our own water quantity concerns rising over the next 10 to 20 years in Dakota County,” said Dakota County Commissioner Joe Atkins. “So, it just doesn't seem like a wise move."

Barb Naramore, the DNR’s deputy commissioner, said Empire Builder could still apply for a pumping permit or modify its proposal to make it more likely to be permitted. A permit application would trigger the need for a environmental assessment worksheet, and possibly a more in-depth environmental impact statement.

Naramore added that in her time at the department she’s seen proposals for moving water in bulk out of Minnesota come and go, including transporting it by tanker from the Great Lakes and building a pipeline from water-rich states to drier ones. None have come to fruition.