Met Council seeks alternatives to groundwater use to avoid depleting aquifers

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter

The receding shoreline of White Bear Lake is illustrated by the walkways residents have extended over exposed ground that use to be lake bottom. (Photo by T.W. Budig)
The receding shoreline of White Bear Lake is illustrated by the walkways residents have extended over exposed ground that use to be lake bottom. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

White Bear Lake poses a simple question: Where did the water go?

In part, down the drain; not exactly, but White Bear Lake does illustrate the complexities of water, a resource scarce in parts of the United States and often taken for granted in water-rich Minnesota.

That is, until lakes shrink and water tables fall – until now.

“If you want to hear anxiety, talk to a public works director whose (city) well is sucking air,” said Tim Kelly, administrator for the Coon Creek Watershed District in Anoka County.

Lawmakers and other officials are trying to learn more about, and plan for the better use of, the state’s water resources.

In the past legislative session, lawmakers slated an additional $6 million per year for groundwater monitoring, for instance.

“I would not characterize our current situation, or anything in the near future, as a crisis,” said former Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Gene Merriam, now of the Freshwater Society. “(But) we’re depleting a groundwater supply that we’re fairly ignorant about.”

The Metropolitan Council is active, currently studying means of lessening the pumping of aquifers — geological sponges, which, as believed with White Bear Lake, can lower surface water levels when depleted.

Aquifers underlie the metro and the rest of the state. They can recharge but some very slowly; the water pumped from them can be 30,000 years old.

Groundwater chart courtesy of the Metropolitan Council.
Groundwater chart courtesy of the Metropolitan Council. (Click to enlarge.)

In the metro, increased reliance on groundwater has taken place. According to the Met Council, 60 years ago, less than a quarter of the water used in the metro was groundwater. More than 75 percent was surface water — water drawn from the Mississippi River, for instance.

But during the 1980s, as the suburbs pushed out, groundwater usage surpassed surface water usage. Currently, about 75 percent of the water used in the metro is groundwater.

Indeed, groundwater is the source of drinking water for 75 percent of Minnesotans and 98 percent of the state’s nearly 1,000 community water systems, according the Environmental Quality Board.

“That caused a lot of decline in the aquifer levels in many places,” Ali Elhassan, Water Supply planning manager for the Met Council, said of groundwater use in the metro.

And the metro area is growing — some 500,000 additional residents by 2030, it’s projected.

Current groundwater modeling suggests the Prairie du Chien-Jordan Aquifer, the most used aquifer in the metro, could be 40 feet lower in some areas of the metro in the future than today.

Some officials argue the region’s current groundwater use is unsustainable.

A Met Council map shows a dark oval in southern Washington County, indicating a Prairie du Chien-Jordan Aquifer drawdown of 30 to 40 feet by 2030 due to anticipated increased pumping.

The map shows scarlet blotches across southern Washington County and parts of Dakota County, indicating more than a 50 percent drawdown of the aquifer.

Exceeding the 50 percent threshold, Elhassan said, means the DNR steps in and tells you to find another source of water.

Should White Bear Lake continue to shrink, the map on a nearby historical marker may become inaccurate. (Photo by T.W. Budig)
Should White Bear Lake continue to shrink, the map on a nearby historical marker may become inaccurate. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

“Looking at White Bear Lake, it’s an indication. It’s a symptom, rather than a problem,” Elhassan said, expressing sympathy for those living along the shoreline.

Although White Bear Lake is the best-known example of the interplay of groundwater and surface water, others exist.

Ramsey Wetlands, Brooklyn Park Wetlands, Seminary Fen and Savage Fen along the Minnesota River are other examples of surface water being affected by groundwater, according to the Met Council.

Besides affecting surface water, declining aquifers can threaten city wells. Met Council officials are exploring ways of having more cities use surface water. They look to the rivers.

“We are a water-rich state,” Elhassan said.

The St. Croix, Mississippi and Minnesota rivers represent trillions of gallons of water flowing through the metro. St. Paul and Minneapolis use a fraction of the river water, according to the Met Council.

According to the city of Minneapolis, the city’s average withdrawal from the Mississippi River — the city’s sole source of water — averages about 21 billion gallons per year.

Ali Elhassan, Water Supply planning manager for the Metropolitan Council. (Photo by T.W. Budig)
Ali Elhassan, Water Supply planning manager for the Metropolitan Council. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Met Council groundwater modeling suggests that if 24 metro communities of the region’s 186 communities shifted to using river water, the aquifer drawdown would slow or even begin to reverse in some areas.

“Instead of water levels going down by 40 feet, we have a rebound of about 15, 10 feet in some places, 5 feet in other places, which is a very sustainable scenario than just relying on groundwater for the future,” Elhassan said.

According to the council, 16 metro cities currently rely on the Mississippi River for water. Minneapolis sells water to Golden Valley, Crystal, New Hope, Columbia Heights, Hilltop, Bloomington and Edina’s Morning Side neighborhood. City officials indicate they have more water to sell.

The Met Council has been tasked to come up with cost estimates for the proposed switch to surface water. City representatives are wary.

“It’s very expensive to lay a large pipe,” said Craig Johnson of the League of Minnesota Cities. Beyond this, there’s right of way issues, he said, and uphill distances.

“It’s an option,” Kelly said of using more river water.

Met Council officials do not envision the cities that shift to river water will seal their wells.

“When you don’t have water in the river, go back to your insurance policy,” Elhassan said of drought and ground water use.

Not that drought routinely threatens the Mississippi River. Over the past century, drought has imperiled flowage only twice, Elhassan said. Ninety-five percent of the time there was sufficient water in the Mississippi River.

But rivers are no more a boundless source of water than groundwater, Kelly warned. Out West, the Colorado River is a classic example of an overdrawn river, he explained.

One less tangible factor is public perception about river water. Merriam, who served on the Coon Rapids City Council decades ago, said, back then, one strike against a proposal from a neighboring city, looking for partners on a project to use river water, was the belief groundwater was cleaner.

“Who wants to drink river water?” Merriam recalled of the sentiment at the time.

Elhassan, at public meetings, has heard similar comments.

Still, the water is inexpensive, he said.

While groundwater costs about 1 cent for 10 gallons, Minneapolis charges a less than a nickel for the same amount of surface water.

“It’s too cheap,”  Blaine Mayor Tom Ryan said.

Ryan, who argues for conservation, points to automatic lawn sprinklers gushing water during rainstorms as one example of squandering water.

“I don’t think it’s an emergency yet,” Ryan said of water issues. “But coming up, it (water issues) will be talked about.”

People are paying more attention to water issues, Kelly said.

“I think White Bear Lake is a chapter in that,” he said. But as long as water continues to flow from the tap, he added, some will ask, “‘What’s the problem?’”

Strict management of groundwater suggested 

Former Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Gene Merriam, now of the Freshwater Society, suggests stricter enforcement and a regional approach as means of better addressing groundwater.

Pumping without the proper permit is a misdemeanor, said Merriam, who serves on the ECM Publishers’ Board of Directors. That is, if someone is pumping more than 10,000 gallons per day without a permit, someone could call their county attorney and report the crime.

But given that county attorneys are busy, it’s unlikely a water crime would be prosecuted, Merriam said.

One way around this, Merriam suggested, is granting the DNR authority to exact administrative penalties.

The DNR is already involved the well permitting process. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has administrative penalty authority, as does the Minnesota Department of Health, he said.

But Merriam said convincing lawmakers to support administrative penalties by the DNR is problematic.

In addition to sharper enforcement, Merriam suggested the metro take the same approach to water as it did with municipal sewage. Years ago, individual cities, such as Anoka, for instance, had their own sewage treatment plants. Now metro sewage treatment has been centralized under the control of the Met Council.

“I think it would make sense — a metropolitan system — for groundwater, surface water and municipal water supplies,” Merriam said.

“Instead of every community figuring out how they’ll meet their water needs, oblivious to what their neighbors are doing or others are doing in the aquifer, we could have some overall management,” he said.

But a League of Minnesota Cities’ official expressed concern about granting the Met Council, for instance, authority over the water supply. Cities have billions of dollars invested in their water systems, said Craig Johnson of the League of Minnesota Cities. The Met Council hasn’t invested a nickel.

Tim Budig is at [email protected].

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