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Why is White Bear Lake shrinking? Angry residents blame DNR

In the past decade, the depth of one of the metro’s most scenic lakes has fallen by nearly six feet.

Unlike most lakes, which are fed by rivers and streams, White Bear Lake is a big porous bowl.
White Bear Lake Restoration Association/Oliver Din

What would you do if the lake out your door started draining away?

For a group of White Bear Lake citizens, the answer is: file a lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources whose policies, they claim, have caused the lake to shrink.

And shrink it has. In the past decade, the depth of one of the metro’s most scenic lakes has fallen by nearly six feet. The retreating shore line has been “a disaster,” says Greg McNeely, president of the White Bear Lake Restoration Association, the outfit that lodged the complaint a couple of days ago.

Among the ill effects he cites: a 70 percent drop in boat traffic; a mucky bottom that makes swimming unpleasant; and closure of the county beach three years ago because of a dangerous drop-off. Lakefront homeowners are no longer on the lakefront, and their docks and boatlifts nowhere near the shore, retail businesses have suffered; and home values have plummeted.

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“A ton of property is for sale,” adds McNeely. “It’s really hurt the morale of the community.” Photos  on the group’s website document some of the damage.

The DNR, which is charged with protecting the environment, seems like an odd target for an environmental lawsuit. But the restoration group, which right now consists only of a five-member board (it plans to recruit a membership, says McNeely), contends that the agency violated its own standards by allowing communities to the north to more than double withdrawals of water from the Prairie du Chien aquifer beneath the lake over the past decade. DNR spokesman Scott Pingelly says that officials have no comment.

Recent study

The suit grows out of a recent U.S. Geological Survey study (partially financed by the DNR) to figure out why the lake’s level has dropped so precipitously. The results are still preliminary, says Perry Jones, the hydrologist in charge. But after he undertook a historical analysis of the lake’s depth, it became clear that in the last 10 years, “rainfall and droughts could not explain the decline in water levels.” 

So what is the explanation?

Unlike most lakes, which are fed by rivers and streams, White Bear Lake is a big porous bowl. Its water comes from precipitation and from the groundwater lodged in the Prairie du Chien aquifer below it. (An aquifer, in case you’re wondering — and I had to look it up — is an underground layer of gravel or sand that contains groundwater — called that, obviously, because it’s stuck in the ground — or in the matrix of gravel or sand.) 

The water in that aquifer also supplies water to cities, businesses, golf courses and everything else in the region. Since 2000, contends the lawsuit, the DNR has authorized “a 98 percent increase in municipal water appropriations permits among a number of cities near White Bear Lake.” As pumping increased, the groundwater in the aquifer depleted. Then, water from the lake was sucked into the aquifer.

Tests Jones conducted showed that water in municipal systems — he’s as yet unsure how much — is coming from White Bear Lake: “There’s more leakage from the lake going down into the deeper aquifer,” he says. From there it’s pumped out to municipal systems.

White Bear Lake
White Bear Lake Restoration Association/Oliver DinGreg McNeely, president of the White Bear Lake Restoration Association, cites a 70 percent drop in boat traffic.

Suburban sprawl in the area boosted demand for water by nearly 40 percent from 2000 to 2010. And since 1980, per capita water consumption has risen by about 20 percent. It’s conceivable that if nothing is done, the lake could eventually go completely dry. To stay at its current level, White Bear Lake would need an additional 4 inches of rain each year.

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The lawsuit, according to Jan Conlin, the plaintiffs’ attorney, basically asks for the DNR to cut out the permitting — or to place limits on the amount of water that municipalities can draw out of the aquifer. Collecting damages “is not the focus of this suit,” she says. “We want them to fix the lake.” 

“The case will turn on a factual determination,” says Brad Karkkainen, a University of Minnesota Law School professor with a specialty in environmental law. “If the claims are true, the plaintiffs have a pretty strong case.”

The reason? The Minnesota Environmental Rights Act provides for injunctive and declaratory relief if there’s an impairment of a natural resource. White Bear Lake is definitely a natural resource, and draining it would be an impairment.

‘Sorry for DNR’

“I feel a little sorry for the DNR,” says Deborah Swackhamer, professor and co-director of the Water Resources Center at the University of Minnesota. Generally, she says, the DNR doesn’t take a second look at water permits unless there’s a problem. And, until the USGS study, the agency “had no idea how the lake worked. They probably didn’t realize that the aquifer was connected to the lake. Now they’re in this big mess. And what do they do?”

She points out that the state can’t simply stop pumping water to Hugo or any of the other towns that need it. The legal complaint lists a few solutions — bringing in water from the St. Paul Regional Water Service, conservation, limiting pumping and so on. But none of the fixes will be neat or easy.

Minnesota is water-rich; so we don’t give it much thought. But half of what we use comes from groundwater, says Swackhamer, “and we don’t know enough about it to manage it.” Continued population growth will only put more pressure on supplies, she says, adding, “Maybe the lawsuit will force some decisions.”