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Why is White Bear Lake shrinking? Angry residents blame DNR

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

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.

“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.

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.”

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Nathan Roisen on 11/30/2012 - 10:34 am.


    6,000 more houses are going where a cornfield used to be, down in Woodbury. This will only make the problem with White Bear Lake worse, as they too draw off the Praire-du-Chen aquifer.

    Personally, I think the solution has to be geared towards conservation. We’re a water-rich area, which has made us careless in how we use our resources.

    It would be interesting to see a graph showing water usage for summer vs. winter in the Twin Cities. I suspect that it is substantially higher in summer, and I also suspect that if people businesses were just a bit more conscious in how they use their water (and had a bit more incentive against overuse), we could cut consumption substantially.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/30/2012 - 11:52 am.

    The Prairie du Chien aquifer can be considered a huge underground lake under much of the upper Midwest. See:

    White Bear Lake is on the furthest northern edge of that underground lake. As withdrawals from the aquifer increase all over the Midwest, accelerated by the recent years of drought, of course the level of the aquifer drops, with the most significant effects felt at the perimeter of the aquifer. Water level drops in White Bear Lake are the natural result of that.

    People may want to blame the development to the north when in all reality the aquifer is being drained by urban and agricultural uses to the south, in the next states, as well as Minnesota.

    This is not a Minnesota DNR problem, it is a national problem. This should be an early warning for the severe crisis in “fossil” (underground aquifer) water that is coming.

  3. Submitted by Todd Adler on 11/30/2012 - 12:57 pm.


    Conservation strikes me as the low hanging fruit on this tree. For a long time we’ve spent water as if it’s an unlimited resource (we’re the land of 10,000 lakes, after all)–and now we’re finding out there are indeed limits to what we have.

    Some people will grumble and complain about government intrusion and the “nanny state,” but we need to look at what is and is not a valid use of water. The alternative is the environment decides for us when the aquifer is completely drained and no one gets any water, which would be disastrous for the people who rely on it for drinking.

    I hate to say it, but White Bear Lake is the top if the iceberg.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/30/2012 - 01:21 pm.

    The 500-pound gorilla

    …that no one apparently wants to acknowledge is that the depletion of the lake appears to be a direct result of development in the area that relies on the Prairie du Chien aquifer for water. The most straightforward solution would be to limit, or even roll back, development, and while dealing with the resulting hysterical response from those who profit from development, perhaps take a thorough look at Minnesota water law.

    Indeed, this area is water-rich, and complacent because of it. Because the Prairie du Chien aquifer, unlike most areas in the state, apparently, relies almost completely on precipitation, it seems to me to be analogous to much of Colorado or other areas in the Rocky Mountain front that, in similar fashion, don’t conveniently have a perennial stream bringing sizable amounts of water to them in dependable fashion. This is the sort of problem that Colorado communities have to deal with all the time, and the basic rule there has, in most cases, boiled down to this: If you withdraw water from a source used by others, you have to replace it. In most instances, the ones entitled by Colorado water law to the use of the water don’t much care HOW the water being lost is replaced – you can bring it in by truck if you want – but it has to be replaced.

    The other interesting quirk in Colorado water law is the doctrine of prior appropriation, which boils down to: First in use, first in right. In practical terms, that would give the original and/or earliest homeowners and/or communities drawing water from the Prairie du Chien aquifer preeminent rights to the use of the water in the aquifer. If you can show in court that your town was the first town established in the area to use water from the aquifer, then your rights to use as much water as you want come before everyone else’s. Once you’ve gotten all the water you want, other communities can use what’s left. If there isn’t enough left to meet their needs, well, too bad. They’re welcome to negotiate with other municipalities and businesses to secure the water they need, and pay for the fleet of trucks or the pipeline to bring the water where it’s needed.

    If prior appropriation and replacement appear to be contradictory, it’s because they sometimes are, and in western states, water law is a whole separate and specialized category. Quite a few lawyers make a pretty good living by dealing with nothing but water law.

    Bringing in enough water to raise the level of White Bear Lake by 6 feet might prove both awkward and expensive. This would be a good time for communities and people living in the area served by the aquifer to acquaint themselves with the term “conservation” in large, italicized letters. Limiting development in the area served by the Prairie du Chien aquifer would surely be seen by at least some locals as a perverse form of blasphemy against God’s obvious will that we all get to do whatever we want with “communal” resources, and build as many houses, apartments and shopping centers as we feel like.

    Too bad the DNR is ending up as the scapegoat here, since what’s driving it all is sprawl and profit. Should the plaintiffs win the lawsuit, it would appear that the DNR would have no recourse but to limit further development in the aquifer’s service area. Let’s try to imagine the screams of protest from developers, builders, and assorted other sprawl-friendly interests. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if those folks, in turn, took the DNR to court to undo the rules the first decision required them to develop to limit water demands. Unlike most of the state, where water quantity is essentially not a problem, this particular area has more in common with communities in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains, with water quantity a genuine issue, and shortage already making itself quite obvious.

    I make no claims to being a lawyer, so, if a MinnPost reader happens to be a water lawyer in Minnesota, I’d be happy to be corrected in my layman’s explanations of the generalities of western water law if I’m in error. Lacking that, I hope Marlys will do more with this topic as it moves through the courts and various city council chambers of the communities using the lake and aquifer. Americans don’t like it when they run up against genuine limits, but unless annual rainfall picks up significantly, there doesn’t appear to be a win-win solution to this.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/30/2012 - 03:32 pm.

      ….Bringing in enough water to raise the level of White Bear Lake by 6 feet might prove both awkward and expensive…

      Very awkward and expensive if you consider that it involves raising levels in an aquifer.

      Unlike Colorado with much water depending on winter snows, there is no quick or easy way to raise aquifer levels and increase available water. It could rain like mad for months and much of the aquifers would not be recharged. The water, in some cases, has been collected over hundreds of thousands of years and. in many cases, significantly decreased in the last half-century or so.


  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/30/2012 - 03:38 pm.

    Prairie du Chien

    …and while I was plugging away at my lengthy comment, Neal Rovick provided some much-needed information. Assuming he’s correct, this is, indeed, something far beyond the scope of the White Bear Lake community, or the Minnesota DNR. It’s perhaps the upper Midwestern equivalent to the Ogallala Aquifer that underlies much of the high plains. Farmers in western Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and, if memory serves me correctly, at least somewhat into western South Dakota have jumped on the “pump from the aquifer” bandwagon with a vengeance in the past couple of decades as dry years have made themselves felt in surface water and rainfall, only to discover that now, they’re having to go back and drill deeper and deeper. Eventually, they’ll hit China before they hit more water, and the subsidence of the aquifer simply confirms that a water supply that took millions of years to accumulate could easily be gone in a century at current usage.

    That can’t happen or, as Todd Hintz points out, there won’t be water to drink. As Neal and Todd suggest, the local complaint may be merely the tip of the (ironic) iceberg. This will be interesting to watch. Americans are disposed to by annoyed by the suggestion of limits to almost anything, and I can’t imagine Minnesotans will cheerfully adapt to a world where they have to limit their use of water.

    Who’d a thunk the desirability of xeriscaping would follow me here from Colorado?

  6. Submitted by Rebecca Shavlik on 11/30/2012 - 05:35 pm.

    Water displacement

    In addition to all the fine points already made, I would like to add that anytime anyone who is in a municipality that uses the Prairie du Chien acquifer for its public water source takes a shower, runs a bath, drains a sink, washes clothes, flushes a toliet or runs their dishwasher – that water is sent to the Pigs Eye Treatment plant where it is displaced into the Mississippi River and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. If the water used from the acquifer was treated and returned to that eco-system rather than being displaced, the issue would not be anywhere near as severe as it is.

  7. Submitted by Cynthia Larson on 11/30/2012 - 09:10 pm.

    Minn Post and article on White Bear Lake Shrinking

    Global Warming. Hard to believe, but it is happening. Dry conditions. Do your research.

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/01/2012 - 03:56 pm.

    And more…

    I sent the link to Marlys’ piece to a Colorado friend who’s a water commissioner on the western slope, and has been involved in water issues for many years. Among other things, his response includes:

    “It took Colorado a century to realize – and acknowledge, through legislation – that groundwater and surface are connected. And getting all the groundwater rights integrated into the surface water rights for determining seniority is still a somewhat chaotic process….”

    I note in the “More Like This” box at the top of the page that the Ciresi law firm has agreed to do pro bono work on the White Bear Lake situation. I suspect they’ll have reason, first, to regret the offer, and second, to eventually abandon it. An aquifer that underlies a significant portion of the upper Midwest isn’t likely to respond to the work of a single law firm. State legislatures and populations are going to have to be involved, and plenty of negotiation and compromise in the process.

    Rebecca Shavlik’s point is well-taken, as is Neal’s second post. I meant to imply something similar – raising the water level of an entire aquifer strikes me as something that’s probably not within our capabilities. At some point, the people using the aquifer might have to make some adjustments to how they live. I think they will not be enthused about the prospect.

  9. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 12/01/2012 - 08:43 pm.


    Finally a “graphic” example of what happens when an aquifer (I can’t believe the writer had to look that up. Where were you educated?) is drained. Cities, Businesses, Farmers or whomever drill huge wells and regular people’s wells go dry. Their complaints are brushed aside, not enough evidence, blah blah blah, but here a lake surrounded by very wealthy people is effected and its god help the DNR. We live in a sick society.

    • Submitted by Steve Tietz on 12/03/2012 - 11:57 am.

      Only one lake is showing the effects?

      Considering the graphics posted showing how large the aquifer is and the many comments, I’m surprised this dramatic drop has only been experienced in one lake.

      Something so large, there must be more.

  10. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/03/2012 - 08:23 am.

    It brings forth a real puzzle:

    Which is the “higher use”?

    Swimming / boating in WBL?

    Watering lawns / washing cars in Woodbury?

    Growing ethanol / cattle feed in Iowa?

    • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 12/04/2012 - 08:29 am.

      Xeriscaping for Minnesota

      I’d love to see xeriscaping catch on in Minnesota. Get rid of the cultural norm of all those water-wasting green lawns, and put in more colorful and interesting prairie-style plantings. Rainwater gardens. Well-designed hardscapes. And so on.

      That’s only one example of areas where changes are needed, of course, but it’s low-hanging fruit and long overdue.

      • Submitted by David Greene on 12/04/2012 - 01:01 pm.


        Absolutely! We are looking at doing native plantings in our yard, which seriously needs new landscaping. Budget is a bit of an issue at the moment but we are getting there.

        After a few walks through state parks with restored prairie, it’s hard NOT to want that in your backyard!

  11. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 12/04/2012 - 11:12 am.

    Widespread effect

    It is not only White Bear Lake that is low. We are seeing most small ponds in the northeast metro going dry. Some of that is our continuing drought; some of it is related to the aquifer levels.

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