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White Bear Lake drying up: symptom of an emerging metro-area water problem

white bear lake shoreline
What if White Bear Lake is only the beginning?

Here’s a scary thought: What if White Bear Lake is only the beginning?

The lake’s loss of a quarter of its volume over the past decade is a wake-up call for the Twin Cities, says Ali Elhassan, water supply planning manager for the Metropolitan Council.

“One of the biggest challenges for us is how we can switch from relying more on groundwater into other sources that are available here,” he says.

The status quo — 75 percent of the metro area depends on groundwater pumped from subterranean aquifers and just 25 percent uses surface water — just isn’t sustainable, Elhassan says.’

Municipal water use in seven-county Twin Cities Metro Area

chart of groundwater vs surface water
Metropolitan Council
Currently, 75 percent of the metro area depends on groundwater pumped from subterranean aquifers and just 25 percent uses surface water.

Already, water levels in other lakes, including Turtle Lake in Shoreview, have diminished, he says, and in 2007 three of Chanhassen’s 11 municipal wells went dry.

“White Bear Lake is a symptom of the bigger problem,” Elhassan says.

Solving the problem is necessary both to ensure a stable supply of water and to guarantee that the area remains a desirable destination for economic development.

Changing Minnesota mindset

It will require big changes, starting with the tough task of shifting a classic Minnesota mindset.

“The challenge first of all is the perception of communities that we have an abundance of water,” Elhassan says.”We are the land of 10,000 lakes and planning for supply used to be built on water abundance.”

That doesn’t mean the region has a water shortage now or will soon have one, he says, but creating more balance in the water supply is essential to preclude that from ever happening.

The Minnesota Legislature authorized a $2 million study of water supply sustainability by the Metropolitan Council and $537,000 for the Council to hire the U.S. Geological Survey to study the changes that led to White Bear Lake’s problems.

Let’s pause here for some definitions:

  • Groundwater: Water that lies beneath the earth’s surface. It comes from precipitation that infiltrates through the soil. Groundwater flows into many lakes and rivers and collects in aquifers.
  • Aquifer: Underground storage reservoirs and pathways for water movement. They act like sponges. There are several aquifers beneath the metro area. Groundwater is pumped from wells, decreasing aquifer levels.

  • Surface water: Water in rivers, lakes, streams and creeks. It is replenished mostly by precipitation but can include some groundwater flow.

Most communities prefer to extract groundwater from wells because it’s cheaper. “It’s more accessible, it’s cleaner,” Elhassan says. “You don’t have to treat it.”

Growth away from Mississippi

Water from the Mississippi River requires treatment before it can be used. Sixty years ago when most development was centered near the river, more than 80 percent of the water supply here came from surface water.

The shift of industrial, commercial and residential growth to areas far from the Mississippi prompted the reversal of that number.

That growth — and the accompanying spread of concrete, asphalt and other impervious surfaces — means less precipitation seeps through the soil to replenish, or recharge, water in aquifers.

Today, that means a plentiful local water supply is largely untapped. Each year, 5 trillion gallons of water move through the Mississippi, Minnesota and St. Croix rivers, Elhassan says.

recharge times
Metropolitan Council
Groundwater moves from high pressure areas, usually where the aquifer is at a higher elevation, to low pressure areas. The area where groundwater comes from is called a recharge area; discharge areas are where groundwater reaches the land surface. Discharge areas may be nearby or very far away.

“We’re using 1 percent of that,” he says. “On top of that, we are putting back in the [Mississippi] about 300 million gallons a day water as treated wastewater.”

The Metropolitan Council is holding workshops now with residents and businesses in the northeast portions of the area. Solutions for White Bear Lake, including using water from the Mississippi, and implications for neighboring communities that rely on groundwater are being discussed.

But long-term answers are needed, Elhassan says.

Expensive change

A transition from reliance on wells to broader use of surface water, with the use of groundwater as backup systems, would be complex, expensive and lengthy, but it’s “the idea we want the communities to start to think about,” he says.

Elhassan also is working with several communities in the south and southeast metro areas who are concerned about water availability as they expand.

“By 2030 some of those communities will have different groundwater levels from now and they’re expecting growth,” he says. Their attitude, he says, stems partly from White Bear Lake’s woes: “We are worried about the future and we want to be proactive.”

Metropolitan Council
The aquifers of the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area consist of unconsolidated glacial deposits and underlying bedrock layers. They form a bowl shape called the Twin Cities Basin when viewed in cross section from west to east.

The Metropolitan Council is trying to identify locations where pressure on aquifers can be relieved, where new water treatment plants could be built, potential for stormwater reuse and other options.

“The first step,” Elhassan says, “is awareness.”

That means explaining to political leaders and residents the impact on aquifers if five or six communities are drilling new wells at the same time and the importance of water conservation.

Not everyone is convinced, Elhassan says. “In many places, to tell you the truth, there is denial.”

The challenge is enormous and so are the stakes.

It would take a big financial investment to funnel surface water to communities far from the rivers. Asking if it’s worth spending millions requires considering another question, he says: “How much will it cost to deal with a water shortage?”

“The cost of building this infrastructure right now is going to be cheaper,” he says, “than the cost of dealing with this crisis when it happens. Planning is our only tool to try to avoid such crisis situations.”

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/08/2013 - 10:53 am.

    Welcome to Denver

    Compared to almost any metro area west of the 100th meridian, the Twin Cities *does* have an abundant supply of water, as does Minnesota. Very nearly every single stream in Colorado has been dammed, and its flow appropriated for one or more reservoirs. Sometimes that diversion is seasonal, sometimes it’s more or less permanent, but there’s very little water in Colorado that hasn’t been legally assigned to some “beneficial use.” Only in the past decade or so have the needs of fish and wildlife begun to enter into the water-use equation out there, and Denver has suburbs quite a bit further along the continuum of absolute dependence upon shrinking underground water supplies.

    Since I came here from there, what appears to have happened in Minnesota, and especially in the Twin Cities metro, is that the humans in charge have made the understandable but demonstrably false assumption that “abundant” and “inexhaustible” are synonymous. This isn’t a great surprise. Human history can often be reduced to conflict over resources, of which water might be the most crucial. Nonetheless, it does little good to “plan” a community, or any kind of economic activity, especially in the typically-American “growth” mode, without considering the availability and relative abundance or shortage of water. It’s pretty common for housing and industrial development to both assume the availability of whatever water supply might be deemed necessary without resort to actual facts on (or under) the ground.

    In that regard, both developers and local governments — and to some degree regional entities like the Met Council, as well as the state government — have been remiss. As I’m sure Ron Meador can say more eloquently than I, it’s a finite planet, folks. There ain’t no backup. Humans without water are dead humans in a matter of a few days.

    Diminished demand is really the only solution when the aquifers are already being emptied faster than they can be refilled. Genuine conservation will do some of that work, and I won’t try to lay out all the conservation possibilities here, but to a degree, it’s an intractable problem. In a very real way, there’s a genuine limit to growth, both of population and the economy. Once we exceed the carrying capacity of the ecosystem, bad things happen, and not just to “other people.” Americans, in particular, are in denial about that reality.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/08/2013 - 02:03 pm.

    I Second Ray’s Concerns

    But I also add to them the suspicion that many of our more “conservative” and/or “libertarian” friends may see an economic interest in allowing this to slide until it becomes a crisis so they can use that crisis to allow them to privatize the public water utility and make themselves and their cronies wealthy off providing something that public can’t survive without.

  3. Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/08/2013 - 09:32 pm.

    I think you forgot ethanol production

    No discussion of groundwater depletion in Minnesota should fail to consider the role of ethanol production. The linked report below, from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, lays it out plainly. Minnesota ethanol plants consume from 3.5 to 6.0 gallons of groundwater for every gallon of ethanol produced. That accounts only for processing, and does not include groundwater for irrigation. Nationally, an estimated 30 billion gallons of groundwater were consumed processing ethanol in 2008. See page 4 of the report.

    Though the St. Paul ethanol plant is now shuttered, there remain about 20 other plants across Minnesota.

    P.S.: Greg, privatization of public water? That is a whopper of a conspiracy theory! Tell us more.

    • Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/09/2013 - 07:57 am.

      I’ve Heard Such Non Responses Before

      “I can’t believe you would accuse me of such a thing!” uttered as a non-response, response by someone guilty of EXACTLY the accusation being leveled.

      Meanwhile, the privatization of water utilities (and most other utilities) has been accomplished across the planet by the “neo-liberal” economists and has already been proposed if not accomplished in several cities across the US.

    • Submitted by Ken Jopp on 10/09/2013 - 08:47 am.

      Conspiracy Theory?

      Watch here – – Nestle CEO: Water Is Not A Human Right, Should Be Privatized

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/09/2013 - 02:48 pm.

      “Personally, I Believe …” At least according to the subtitles, that is what the former Nestle CEO is saying. Hardly proof positive of a conspiracy.

      Greg, are you accusing me of conspiring to privatize the water supply?

  4. Submitted by Greg Genz on 10/08/2013 - 11:38 pm.

    Diminishing Aquifers

    Now, someone needs to look to South Washington County and tell the City of Woodbury not to spend $20 million on a storm sewer to get rid of excess storm water to the Mississippi River. They should possibly find a way to send it to White Bear Lake. The Mississippi doesn’t need any more excess water moving sediment downriver.

  5. Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/09/2013 - 08:15 am.

    For Perspective, Some Lake History

    This Pioneer Press article from 2010 provides some lake history back to the 1920s.

    It seems the lake has had an up and down history. which is why a long submerged tennis court is once again dry. Throughout most of the 1960s, Ramsey County pumped over 5000 gallons per minute into the lake. Water has been added to the lake for much of the 20th century. According to the column, low water marks were reached in 1934, 1991, 2009.

    The first line of the column, “The water has always come back.”

  6. Submitted by Ken Jopp on 10/09/2013 - 09:14 am.

    How you can help

    Impervious surfaces, such as poured concrete sidewalks and asphalt parking lots, prevent rain from soaking into the ground where it lands and instead funnel it into storm sewers. The sewers deliver the water, and the surface pollutants that the water picks up, into nearby waterways. If the dirty water is coming off an asphalt surface on a hot summer day, then it’s heated and there’s the added problem of thermal pollution, which can affect the fertility of aquatic life. Plus, the water volume added to the waterways contributes to shoreline erosion.

    There’s a better way.

    Alternative surface treatments are available that allow rain water (and snowmelt) to soak into the soil where it lands. This allows soil bacteria to breakdown pollutants and helps replenish groundwater and keeps the water out of the storm sewers. Permeable pavers, for example, have been used for parking lots, sidewalks, and commons areas on public and private properties around the country. Here’s an overview of how it works, from the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute :

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