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Sobering looks at groundwater, a critical resource we take for granted

Minnesotans don’t know how much we’re using, how much is left, or when the wells might start to go dry.

It has taken the subsidence of a premier recreational lake in an affluent suburb to demonstrate that groundwater depletion is as serious an issue as pollution, and not only in scattered pockets around big ethanol plants.
White Bear Lake Restoration Association/Oliver Din

Whatever the fate of White Bear Lake, its fluctuations in recent years have helped to focus public discussion and journalistic enterprise on Minnesota’s groundwater resource at a time when serious attention is overdue.

The quality of water we draw from underground has received some attention over the years when the subject is agricultural or industrial pollution, but only a tiny fraction of the concern we devote to our treasured lakes and rivers.

As for quantity, it has taken the subsidence of a premier recreational lake in an affluent suburb to demonstrate that depletion is as serious an issue as pollution, and not only in scattered pockets around big ethanol plants.

So if you haven’t yet read the Pioneer Press’s series from last weekend, you really should.  It’s solidly reported and quite accessible. It could easily have been twice as long — and half as gentle on some of the players.

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What is happening to White Bear Lake is always described as an interaction of drought, which we’ve all witnessed, and big increases in groundwater pumping — for residential, industrial and agricultural use — that have been essentially invisible to the public and uncontrolled by public agencies.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway — drought is beyond our power to control, but waste and lax regulation are not. However strongly we might  prefer to look the other way.

A treasure we don’t measure

Reporter John Brewer points out that 60 years ago, when the metro area had 1.9 million residents, 90 percent of their water came from surface sources — lakes and rivers.

Now the population is 50 percent larger, and three-quarters of its water is pumped from underground. Nearly all of that is pumped from one source — the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer. As the aquifer goes down, lakes dry up. So do wells.

But these numbers don’t begin to tell you anything  really meaningful about our present predicament — like, how much water is left, and how fast we’re using it up. Amazingly, there aren’t anywhere near enough monitoring wells to yield reliable data on such points.

The Department of Natural Resources says it needs 7,000 such wells. It has one-tenth that many, and only about 50 in the metro area. The Legislature is considering whether to spend $9.5 million to double the state’s array of monitoring wells to 1,600 — less than one-fifth of what’s needed.

Nor do we have nearly as clear a picture as we might of who’s pumping how much water, and for what purposes — and this is where you can stop feeling sorry for the DNR’s groundwater managers, because they freely admit they don’t make use of the information they do have when it comes to protecting this resource.

One example, as told by Brewer: The city of Fairmont ran seriously short of water last fall and decided to reopen an emergency well to fill the gap, even though the water will  require softening to the tune of $300,000 a year. It’s also building a new waterworks, and in reviewing the permit paperwork DNR officials noticed the city had been pumping four times its allowance from Budd Lake, and had been doing so for decades.

A DNR hydrologist told the Pioneer: “That’s on us, I suppose, for allowing it to go on that long.”

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I suppose. I further suppose, as the DNR must suppose, that Fairmont will make up with public groundwater whatever reductions the agency requires in its withdrawals of public lake water.

Many violators, no enforcement

But if you suppose the Fairmont story to be unique, or even unusual, have a look at Mark Steil’s recent story for Minnesota Public Radio:

Over the last six years, hundreds of individuals, businesses and even state government agencies have pumped more than their permit allows, according to state Department of Natural Resources records. But violators face few consequences for these misdemeanor violations. Even in a two-year drought, DNR officials admit they don’t spend much time enforcing permit limits.

The violations come from nearly every category of water user: cities, crop irrigators, power companies, private businesses, golf courses, schools, government agencies, even a church. All have a state permit which lets them take a specific amount of water each year from underground wells, rivers, lakes and wetlands. But many aren’t obeying the terms of their permit.

DNR’s Dale Homuth told Steil his agency is more focused on finding illegal wells and issuing new permits, which bring new revenue, than on finding and dealing with violators. New permit applications are “at record levels the last couple of years,” he said, but staff size hasn’t grown … and their computers are outdated. …

Steil wrote that MPR was able to identify serial violators with a spreadsheet program and a couple of hours of work, and also to review the complete files of the 11 biggest offenders. It found just one instance of DNR notifying a violator — a nursery in Spicer — but no further action was taken and the violations continued.

Homuth told Steil that he knew of no instance in which charges had been brought for over-pumping, and said the DNR’s philosophy was, “As long as they pay, we’re happy.”

Steil pointed out, however, that water-use fees — which bring the state treasury some $4 million a year— are nearly always based on the volume of water pumped, and that users who go beyond their permitted amounts are supposed to pay more.

What about the future?

The Pioneer series doesn’t really address the future implications of groundwater trends. You could extrapolate, I suppose, from the experience of a few unfortunate communities, but the cited examples are frankly not that alarming.

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Some metro suburbs might have to switch from wells to water purchased from big systems in St. Paul or Minneapolis that draw from the Mississippi River. Residential water bills in a place like White Bear Lake could rise from  $27 per quarter to maybe $73 — less than $200 a year.

Fairmont will have to recoup that $300,000 a year, of course. Marshall is planning a $16 million to $18 million pipeline project that would bring in water from a new well 23 miles away. But these aren’t such huge numbers if you spread them out over a large number of payers and/or a long period of time.

But other American communities are dealing with more serious shortages of the kind that could easily be in Minnesotans’ future. So I went looking for trouble in places dependent on the Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies parts of eight states from Texas to South Dakota, to get a sense of what can happen when wells start to go dry for good.

The city of Wichita, Kansas, is looking at projections that show chronic water shortages starting by the middle of 2015.  In response, the city’s officials are looking at two types of solution, neither terribly permanent.

On the conservation side, they can raise water rates to discourage lawn-watering and other summertime uses, or just ban some of those uses outright. On the supply side, there’s a proposal to invest $5 million to drill deeper wells and install more powerful pumps “to get more to more of the water the city has the rights to in the aquifer.”

Nowadays $5 million isn’t such a big number for a city of Wichita’s size, but this investment would only delay the onset of chronic shortages by 22 months. Then what?

‘Toilet to tap’ technology

From the southern end of the Ogallala, the Texas Tribune reports that a handful of cities in more dire straits are investing in “direct potable re-use” projects — a term distinctly more palatable than “toilet to tap.”

This spring the Texas cities of Midland and Odessa will start drawing drinking water from a $14 million project that collects wastewater, subjects it to intensive chemical treatment and filtration, then returns it directly to the supply pipes (without first passing it through an aquifer the way they do over in El Paso and, for that matter, in California’s Orange County.)

Wichita Falls and Brownwood are pursuing similar direct re-use projects; Lubbock and Abilene are giving it some thought. And though the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality signs off on such projects, neither it nor the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has any regulations in place for such projects, according to the Tribune.

Theoretically, I suppose, there’s no reason these plants can’t replicate all the freshening functions of an aquifer by artificial means and deliver an equally potable glass of water. Anybody in Minnesota eager to find out?

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For a broader look at groundwater politics in the Ogallala regions I recommend a piece published Monday on the Stateline news service page of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Among other points, it explains that disputes over groundwater rights aren’t settled as easily as the West’s legendary conflicts over surface-water appropriation, because neither the resource nor the takeouts are as easily measured. Thus the current lawsuits pitting Nebraska against Kansas, and Texas against both Oklahoma and New Mexico.