MN Supreme Court partially reverses appeals court on White Bear Lake water levels

White Bear Lake
Docks extend into White Bear Lake in September 2011, where water levels steadily decreased for about 10 years. The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday partially ruled in favor of homeowners who sued the Department of Natural Resources over water levels on White Bear Lake.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2011

The Minnesota Supreme Court has partially ruled in favor of homeowners who sued the Department of Natural Resources over water levels on White Bear Lake.

In the decision issued Wednesday, the court ruled the two associations — which claimed the DNR mismanaged groundwater pumping and caused the lake’s level to reach a historic low — do have a claim under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act.

The split ruling, written by Justice David Lillehaug, rejected a claim by the White Bear Lake Homeowners’ Association that the DNR failed to protect the lake for public use. Still, one advocacy group called the decision a victory for environmental protection.

"We think the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld one of Minnesota's bedrock environmental laws and reaffirmed that destroying the environment is prohibited no matter how it occurs or who is responsible for it,” said Elise Larson, attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

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In 2012, the White Bear Lake Restoration Association and the White Bear Lake Homeowners Association sued the DNR, arguing that groundwater pumping permits have a cumulative impact on the lake and that the state agency failed to assess and address the issue.

Then in 2017, a Ramsey County district court judge sided with the homeowners. Judge Margaret Marrinan ruled that the DNR had to take steps to cut groundwater use, better police permitted wells and come up with alternate sources of municipal water to keep the lake from dropping precipitously.

Two years later, the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned that decision, ruling that homeowners must challenge each pumping permit individually and leave it up to the DNR to hear and decide each challenge.

But in Wednesday’s decision, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court by saying the associations do have a claim under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act.

Larson said that decision reaffirms the broad nature of the act — the state law that allows citizens to sue to stop conduct that is damaging the environment.

The lawsuit was never about any single permit, but about the large volume of permits in and around White Bear Lake and their impact on the lake and its underlying aquifer, said Katie Crosby Lehmann, an attorney representing the White Bear Lake Restoration Association. 

“Really, the DNR wanted to be the fox guarding the hen house,” Lehmann said. “The Supreme Court, in its opinion, called this 'odd,' rejected it, and said that we as citizens have the right to challenge state agencies when they fail to protect and act in their duties to protect the environment."

The DNR released a statement saying it’s reviewing the decision, but has no other comment at this time. It noted that the Supreme Court sent the case back to the state appeals court to decide several issues previously raised during the appeal.

“Our priority remains ensuring that White Bear Lake and its underlying aquifer are managed sustainably under the standards set forth in state law,” the DNR stated.

The east Twin Cities metro lake has returned to more normal levels in recent years. The DNR issued a study in 2018 showing groundwater pumping has a minimal long-term impact on the lake level.

In the study, the DNR acknowledged that wells in the region do have an effect on lake levels. But the agency said the study indicates other factors, like rainfall, evaporation and other weather phenomenon are also significant factors.