Shipping Minnesota water to sate a thirsty world: Could it happen?

Minnesota DNR staff spent the morning collecting nets in Lake Superior.
Minnesota has an abundance of water, including the Great Lakes and more than 11,000 inland lakes. While water is increasingly becoming a valuable commodity, a Dakota County company last week announced a proposal to pump water from below the ground in the county and transport it to the western U.S. Here, Lake Superior is photographed in October 2017 in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2017

Last week came the surprising news that a company in Lakeville, Minn., wants to pump water from below the ground in Dakota County and transport it by rail to the western United States, where water is scarce.

Environmental groups quickly opposed the idea. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said the plan likely won't meet state law.

But could a plan like this ever become reality?

What does the proposal entail?

A company called Empire Builder Investments Inc., an affiliate of a Lakeville railroad company Progressive Rail, wants to install two pumps on 6 acres of property it owns in Randolph, a Dakota County town south of the Twin Cities near Lake Byllesby.

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They would pump up to 500 million gallons of groundwater annually — about the amount of water used by 5,000 homes every year, according to the DNR.

Empire Builder would partner with an Oregon company Water Train, which ships water in bulk by rail car to western states like Colorado dealing with drought and water shortages.

What reasons did the DNR give for why this plan wouldn’t likely be approved?

On a conference call with reporters Friday, Deputy DNR Commissioner Barb Naramore said agency officials notified the company they don't see how this proposal, as is, could meet state statutes.

That’s partly because of its location. The company would be pumping water out of the Mount Simon-Hinckley Aquifer.

Thirty years ago, as part of the Groundwater Protection Act giving the state authority to prevent groundwater contamination, the Minnesota Legislature passed restrictions on pumping water out of that aquifer. New wells are only allowed to tap into the aquifer if the water is to be used for drinking, and only if there are no other practical or feasible alternatives for drinking water.

The proposal is in its very early stages. Empire Builder has only applied for preliminary assessment for the well, which is required in Minnesota before any individual or company drills a well that will withdraw more than 1 million gallons a year. The company hasn’t yet applied for a permit to pump the water.

It’s possible Empire Builder could modify its proposal in a way that would make it more likely to pass DNR muster, Naramore said. A project of the scale the company is proposing would trigger a mandatory environmental review, and possibly a more in-depth environmental impact statement, she said.

What other concerns have been raised about this proposal?

Several groups quickly criticized the plan after it was made public because the Mount Simon-Hinckley Aquifer is one of the deepest and oldest aquifers in Minnesota. It takes a long time for the groundwater to recharge.

In the meantime, according to a recent report, Dakota County will be facing its own challenges to having enough water available in the next 10 to 20 years, County Commissioner Joe Atkins said.

There’s also a lot of concern about the idea of Minnesota sending what is perhaps its most valuable resource — fresh water — to other states.

Bulk export of water isn’t strictly banned by state law — yet — although there are restrictions.

The Great Lakes Compact — of which Minnesota is a signatory — was established in 2008 and bans diverting water from the Great Lakes, with a few limited exceptions.

Minnesota is starting to come to grips with the fact that it does not have an endless supply of water. There’s growing concern in certain parts of the state — including the Twin Cities metro area and farmland in central and southern Minnesota — and that development and irrigation of farm fields are depleting groundwater sources too quickly.

Should we expect to see more of this type of requests in the future?

It’s likely we’ll see more of that. Minnesota has an abundance of water, including the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes and more than 11,000 inland lakes.

Meanwhile, water is increasingly becoming a valuable commodity, as other states including California and Colorado face serious droughts and water shortages expected to worsen due to climate change.

Todd Jarvis, director of the Institute for Water and Watersheds at Oregon State University, said the idea of moving water from one area to another isn’t new. Large-scale proposals for water pipelines from water-abundant states to the western U.S. have been floating around since the 1970s, he said.

“It’s been on the books for a very long time,” Jarvis said. “In fact, the research that we’re seeing today is indicating that this may be the future of water resources for the world.”

Such projects face hurdles, he said, including high costs, regulations and political opposition.

The idea of sending Minnesota water out of the state draws some strong reaction from a variety of different groups, from environmentalists to well-drillers themselves.

"The waters of Minnesota should not be for sale,” said Dave Schulenberg, executive director for the Minnesota Water Well Association, which represents the well drilling industry. “Keeping the groundwater in our current watershed and our aquifers so we can continue to have sound water management in the state is just one of our concerns with this."

Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said his initial reaction to the proposal was, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“It’s this really ancient, pure mother lode of water resource,” Morse said. “I’m just kind of amazed at the audacity of companies to come in and just think they can drill that, pump it and take it to the southwest desert.”

The DNR’s Naramore said the proposals come and go and get a lot of people fired up, but none has gotten to the point of a final project.

But as more parts of the country cope with either a water excess or a shortage, expect to hear more about the bulk transport of water in the future.