Elko New Market's plan to tap aquifer for bottled water plant draws residents' ire

A California-based company hopes to build a water bottling plant in Elko New Market, south of the Twin Cities. Critics worry it could jeopardize the health of the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer in a region struggling already with severe to extreme drought.
Alex Friedrich | MPR News 2013

Residents of the small town of Elko New Market are pushing back against a California company’s plan to build a bottled water plant in their community south of the Twin Cities in Scott County.

Niagara Bottling is proposing to invest $125 million to build a 425,000-square-foot facility in the city’s industrial park, just off Interstate 35. It would draw from the city's water supply — which comes from the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer — for production of its bottled beverages.

City officials say the project would bring jobs and economic growth to Elko New Market, which has about 5,000 residents, and would be a catalyst for development in the city’s fledgling industrial park.

The plant would be “the single largest by far commercial or industrial project that we've seen in our community,” said Tom Terry, city administrator. It’s expected to create nearly 60 jobs and generate at least $170,000 a year in city property taxes, he added.

But Niagara’s plan has generated strong opposition from some residents who think it’s a bad idea for environmental and ethical reasons.

“We're setting precedent that the state of Minnesota is going to allow an out-of-state company to come into our aquifers and pump water in perpetuality, and turn around and sell it back to us,” said Janelle Kuznia, who lives near the proposed plant. “We should all be concerned about our water resources.”

‘Why is this the best option?’

The Elko New Market City Council is expected to decide Thursday night whether to approve a preliminary plat, change of zoning and applications for state loans to subsidize the project.

Even if those pass, the city also needs approval from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to pump more groundwater before the project can move forward.

In its initial phase, the facility is expected to use about 155 million gallons a year — more than what the entire city currently uses. Eventually, that amount would increase to an estimated 310 million gallons a year, Terry said.

The city’s current permit allows it to withdraw up to 135 million gallons of groundwater annually. It’s asking the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to amend that permit to allow up to 365 million gallons a year.

That would accommodate the initial phase of production at the Niagara facility plus other growth in the community for the next several years, Terry said. 

But some residents are questioning the wisdom of allowing a company to bottle and sell its water to customers who don’t live in the city and maybe not in Minnesota, especially while much of the region is in the midst of a severe drought.

Elko New Market draws its water from the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer, the source of drinking water for many in the Twin Cities metro area.

Tim Zweber is an organic farmer who operates a direct-to-consumer meat business in Elko New Market. He’s concerned about the bottling plant’s water use affecting his private well. 

An even bigger worry is the long-term sustainability of the region’s groundwater supply as the area continues to grow, Zweber said.

“The assumption is that this area will have tens of thousands of people living here eventually, and lots of light and heavy industry as well,” he said. “This isn't the end of the demand for water. This is just the beginning, and it's a big beginning.”

Residents of Elko New Market have been required to limit their use of city water for watering their lawns, said Sandy McMillan, who lives about a mile and a half outside the city.

“Now we have a bottling company coming in, using millions of gallons of that water,” she said. “So if we're in a drought, if we were told to limit our water supply, why is this the best option?”

City officials say Elko New Market’s existing wells have sufficient capacity to provide water to the new plant. And they say the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer’s levels have remained steady over the past few decades, even amid rapid population growth.

But Carrie Jennings, research and policy director at the nonprofit advocacy group Freshwater, thinks there should be a regional conversation about whether a bottling plant is the best use of the water supply in the long term.

“It seems like the most sensible thing for me is to get the DNR and the (Metropolitan) Council involved and have a holistic discussion, before somebody plops down a high-pumping anything,” Jennings said.

Earlier this year, Niagara withdrew a similar plan to build a bottling plant in Eau Claire, Wis., prior to a city council vote. The proposal faced strong opposition by some community members over the amount of water it would use and the plastic waste created by bottled water.

Niagara Bottling did not respond to emails requesting comment on the Elko New Market project.

At a planning commission meeting in November, Patrick Drinan, the company’s senior economic development manager, said the plant would produce half-liter bottles of purified water, mostly for customers in Minnesota and Wisconsin. About 15 percent would be delivered to markets in North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa, he said.

Minnesota bulk water restrictions don’t apply

Before the DNR can decide whether to approve the amended water permit, it will require the city of Elko New Market to update its 10-year water supply plan, said Randall Doneen, section manager in the DNR’s ecological and water resources division. The city’s current plan “doesn’t envision this high of water use,” Doneen said. 

He said the DNR will need to know where the city plans to draw the additional water from so it can understand whether there could be potential effects on lakes, rivers, streams or other wells in the area.

“The sustainability standard is a very important tool and bar you have to get over,” Doneen said. “It provides a good level of protection for any aquifer in the state.”

It’s important to make sure that there’s an adequate supply of water for drinking and household use, which is the highest priority, Doneen said. Bottling and selling the water for drinking — a commercial use — is a lower priority, he said.

In 2019, a Lakeville-based company sparked outrage when it proposed shipping groundwater from Dakota County by rail to western U.S. states, where water is scarce.

State officials quickly quashed the proposal, noting that 30-year-old restrictions limit pumping from the Mt. Simon-Hinckley aquifer for industrial use.

Wary that the drought encompassing much of the U.S. could lead to more such schemes, Minnesota lawmakers passed a law limiting the bulk transport of water. 

But those restrictions would not apply in this case, Doneen said, because bottling and selling water isn’t considered bulk transport. There are many companies in the state that put water in individual containers and ship them worldwide, he said.

Residents also asked the DNR to order an environmental review of the project. Doneen said the agency has not yet decided on the request.

Elko New Market Mayor Joe Julius said plans to develop the city’s industrial park have been in the works for 10 years. He said the Niagara project would help the city diversify its tax base and grow.

“Everything we've seen from interactions with Niagra represents that they could be a very good partner for our community,” Julius said.

He’s aware there’s a lot of philosophical objections to the plant, but thinks the city’s role is to decide on the company’s application to use the land, not to make broad statements about climate change or plastic manufacturing.

“I think if, as a state, we wanted to take a position — some higher tax rate, or preventing other other cities or states from coming in here to take resources to resell it — I think that's something that really should be handled on a state level,” Julius said. “I feel there's a proper venue and a proper route to fight those battles.”

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