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Get ready for more White Bear Lakes: Two new looks at groundwater depletion

The USGS found that falling water levels in White Bear Lake are largely attributable to increased groundwater pumping by city water systems to the north and west.

Two new reports on Minnesota’s groundwater resource deserve more attention than they’ve been getting.

One, from the U.S. Geological Survey, updates and elaborates its findings that falling water levels in White Bear Lake are largely attributable to increased groundwater pumping by city water systems to the north and west.

Another, from the Freshwater Society, sets that lake’s predicament in the context of a much larger problem — a huge increase in groundwater pumping all across Minnesota during the last quarter-century.

From 1988 to 2011, the report finds, pumping by Minnesota’s largest groundwater users — municipal systems and agricultural irrigators, for the most part — grew by 31 percent. That’s far faster than population, which rose by 24 percent.

And this statistic may significantly understate the true trend, but nobody really knows. It is drawn from permit records maintained by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and you have to pump an awful lot of water before a permit is required: Wells serving private homes, most businesses and lots of non-irrigating farms aren’t counted.

Also, the department didn’t start keeping the records on which the Freshwater Society analysis is based until 1988 — and still makes little effort to enforce the permit and reporting requirements against users who choose not to comply.

‘Areas of concern’ statewide

The impacts of soaring consumption are showing up quite clearly, not only in White Bear Lake but in 15 other places designated by the DNR as “groundwater areas of concern.”

By definition, these are 16 places “where communities have sought planning or regulatory help from the DNR, where groundwater contamination is known to exist, or where hydrologists have long suspected pumping is, or could become, unsustainable.” In other words, where somebody with a close-up view of the situation sees a big problem taking shape.

In two of those areas the DNR is preparing to make first use of its authority to create “groundwater protection areas” as way of addressing the impacts of irrigation pumping:

  • The Bonanza Valley north of Willmar, where summertime groundwater levels have been dropping significantly in recent years, and where the DNR has been concerned for at least four years that irrigation pumping has reached unsustainable levels.
  • A region around Park Rapids where irrigation pumping threatens to deplete the Straight River and also appears to be introducing nitrate contamination into municipal wells.

Elsewhere: In Bemidji, the issue is chemical contamination from a former sanitary landfill that is now a Superfund site. In Perham, irrigation is returning nitrates to the groundwater. In Rochester and along Interstate 94 corridor between the Twin Cities and St. Cloud, the concern is that rapid residential development may oversubscribe each region’s groundwater resources.

And on it goes, in places as small as Luverne and as big as Marshall, Mankato and Moorhead.

And yet even today, the report shows, little meaningful effort is being made to manage groundwater withdrawals or to measure how much is actually left.

Consider: In the eight communities whose groundwater pumping has been linked to White Bear Lake’s decline, withdrawals have more than doubled since 1980, from an average 1.7 billion gallons per year to 3.7 billion. But they could have gone all the way to 4.8 billion before exceeding the levels set in DNR permits.

Where the groundwater goes

Nearly three Minnesotans in four drink water that came from a well rather than a river or lake. Even in the Twin Cities metro area, with Mississippi River water feeding the big-city systems in Minneapolis and St. Paul, groundwater is 70 percent of the mix. Thirty years ago it was half; 70 years ago it was 10 percent.

A little over half the groundwater pumping tracked by DNR is done to supply city water systems. About a quarter is used in agricultural irrigation, and about one-fifth by industry. The remainder is scattered among such uses as livestock operations, snowmaking, sewage treatment and golf courses. (Though often singled out as water wasters, golf courses pump just 2 percent of the total.)

However, this pie chart is being reconfigured by the rapid expansion of agricultural irrigation. While municipal systems increased their pumping by 33 percent from 1988 through 2011, irrigation pumping increased more than twice as fast, rising 73 percent over the period. Industrial pumping, meanwhile, declined somewhat.

Again, these stats refer to reported pumping, and Minnesota requires permits and reports only for enterprises pumping in excess of either 10,000 gallons a day or a million gallons a year.

Those are mind-boggling and perhaps meaningless numbers to most people — including me — who have no idea how much water  is used by, say, a typical modern household. So I did a little research and back-of-the-envelope ciphering.

I drink from a private well now (and, oddly, am more attuned to conserving water than I was when I had to buy it from the city of Minneapolis). But when I was on the city supply, watering my lawns and sidewalks, washing my cars and raising a teenager who might shower for a half-hour at a time, and never remembered to jiggle handle when the toilet was running on, my bill typically showed two or three “units” of water per month  — a unit being 748 gallons in the Minneapolis system.

At a full three units every month, our  total annual consumption would round up to 27,000 gallons. Which means that  if you happen to have a well in, say, the Bonanza Valley, you can pump nearly 40 times as much as our heedless household without having to get a permit, file a report or pay a penny for the public resource you withdraw.

If you do take out a permit, you can pump up to 50 million gallons a year for your minimum fee of $140 — a figure the Freshwater Society observes is “far too low to discourage waste or over-use.”  

The cost of change

I’m dwelling on the dollars here because it’s clear that something has to change in Minnesota’s management of groundwater and those changes will carry costs — costs that no doubt will be assailed as excessive and needless even if they are, in fact, measly and unavoidable.

Writing in the Pioneer Press the other day, the Freshwater Society president (and former legislator and DNR commissioner) Gene Merriam offered this perspective on a proposal to expand the state’s network of groundwater monitoring wells:

The $6.1 million per year sounds like a lot of money, but the fees increases will not be an undue hardship for water users.

For residential water service, the state fee would increase from a range of $3.50 to $8 per million gallons under the current fee schedule, to $15 per million gallons under the new structure. But the increase — assuming it all is passed on to consumers — would boost water costs for a household by only about $1 per year. That is less than the cost of a single bottle of water in most vending machines.

For agricultural irrigation, the state fee would go from an average of $10 per million gallons to $22. Many industrial users pumping from their own wells would pay $30 per million gallons.

The society titled its report “Minnesota’s Groundwater: Is Our Use Sustainable?” and answers the question by saying that pumping has already reached unsustainable levels in a few areas and threatens to do the same in a few more before long.

But this is not really a mixed picture. The trend lines on groundwater withdrawal are steady and steep. Responses so far have been scattered and inconsistent. And if not for the prominence of White Bear Lake, the entire subject of groundwater depletion might still be struggling for a little public awareness.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Presley Martin on 05/01/2013 - 11:10 am.

    Water conservation

    We need to look to California for solutions. They have held steady on water consumption while adding huge #’s of people. More rain barrels, more low flow toilets and shower-heads, more awareness of water issues. Growing-up in California we all learned, “if it’s yellow, let it mellow, brown flush it down.”

  2. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/01/2013 - 12:17 pm.


    Just like anything else, humans have a habit of using something until its gone. If only we can find a way to make money from millfoil, zebra muscles, and Asian carp, they would all be eradicated in no time.

  3. Submitted by Lora Jones on 05/01/2013 - 12:42 pm.

    Although I agree with Mr. Martin about conservation

    the reality is that it’s probably going to be a tough sell. I’m a native Minnesotan, and at my dad’s insistence and example, have tried to conserve water all my life/ But I’ve had more than one person tell me that I’m the only Minnesotan they’ve ever met who does so (though I’m sure there are more of us, we’re not particularly thick on the ground it seems), and have gotten disbelieving looks from people when I’ve even mentioned the fact that our groundwater is being rapidly depleted, in part because of climate shifts and repeated droughts, but largely because we’ve paved over so much of the land that used to recharge it.

    It seems to me that culturally we’ve been lulled by the fact that we have so many lakes and rivers and a huge body of freshwater sitting off the coast of Duluth. I can only hope that, because so many of us value those lakes and rivers, we’ll wake up a critical mass of people quickly and work to alleviate the problem. Unfortunately, the recent (and current) rains may cosmetically raise lake levels enough that we’ll ignore the systemic problem for another season.

  4. Submitted by L.A. Krahn on 05/01/2013 - 01:05 pm.

    We don’t value what’s free or very cheap

    Until you read this article, you probably thought that “your” share of Minnesota groundwater is just a “given,” isn’t it?

    Like fresh air or a quiet starlit night sky, these are community resources we perceive as norms. They have no intrinsic monetary or economic value until there is disruption to these norms’ very existence.

    Water resource conservation needs a much higher priority than the DNR has given it. Groundwater monitoring wells would be a great start to focus our attention on researching the problem. Pricing and valuing water at its real cost would also be a start — so heavy users would have to factor the value of local water into their business/pricing plans. There’s no incentive for anyone to change to more sustainable practices if it’s still perceived as our “free” groundwater.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/01/2013 - 02:30 pm.

    Minnesota’s political figures

    …from the Governor on down, not to mention the DNR, need to get their collective heads out of their… um… sand boxes.

    I spent 50+ years at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi, where no one thinks twice about water except in terms of quality. Quantity, after all, should be a given, right?

    Then I spent a dozen years on the Colorado Front Range, where water quantity is ALWAYS an issue among the thoughtful (and yes, there are some who are not especially thoughtful), and where people with zero interest in skiing or winter recreation in the mountains will very nearly obsess over snowpack figures for the various river drainages in the state because they know that the winter snowpack is their next summer’s drinking water. I’ve never read an accurate count, but wouldn’t be surprised if the number of artificial, man-made reservoirs in Colorado is pretty close to the number of natural lakes in the Land O’ Lakes.

    When I arrived here 4 years ago, I was assured once again that while there were some small concerns about water quality, quantity was not, and couldn’t conceivably become, an issue.

    Ooops. Without water, there’s no economy, not to mention no living things. This is perhaps the most basic environmental issue of all after air quality, and I see no sign at all that it’s being addressed by the DNR or the legislature. The time to start limiting quantities and uses through price manipulation is BEFORE we’ve really reached a genuine crisis point, not after. The more I read, the more it seems likely that both quality AND quantity are going to be water issues for the foreseeable future. So far, I’m not inspired by the efforts of the DNR, feeble as they’ve been, nor the near-total absence of awareness by legislators and the Governor. It’s an issue with profound long-term consequences, and the fix(es) are similarly long-term. We ought to be starting now to do something about this.

    I learned a lot about xeric gardening while in Colorado, and thought that background would probably be of little use here. More and more, it appears that my supposition was wrong.

  6. Submitted by Mike Downing on 05/01/2013 - 07:38 pm.

    White Bear Lake

    Thank you for a well written article on a subject that really needs the attention of every Minnesotan. It is truly shocking to see the negative result of municipal well pumping has had on White Bear Lake water level. The USGS has alerted us to the simple fact that White Bear Lake is the proverbial “canary in the coal mine”. Minnesota has a regional if not statewide problem due to municipal well pumping out of our aquifers. Our Governor and our Legislature need to address the issue of surface water vs well water. Many of our lakes are at risk of becoming marshes if our Governor and our Legislature does not resolve this issue in the 2014 legislative session.

    Concerned citizens are counting on our elected officials to lead on this important issue to the State of Minnesota.

  7. Submitted by David Frenkel on 05/01/2013 - 09:48 pm.

    California has an ugly history of water waters. LA gets much of its water from mountain runoff from the Ownes valley that LA Water District purchased and drove out farmers. Some of the major agricultural areas of CA like the Salinas valley are running out of water and some areas are becoming saline from ocean water breaching lowered aquifers. CA has the usual heavy snowpack of the Sierras which MN lacks.
    In ND people are literally becoming millionaires selling water to the oil industry and the price of water in western ND is skyrocketing. Canada and Nebraska have been suing ND over river water rights issues.
    The article points out that water is not a reliable resource and we have done very little to monitor its use.

  8. Submitted by Bill Palmquist on 05/02/2013 - 01:39 pm.


    It is my understanding that the DNR has authority only when the pumping affects a stream or other body of surface water. This will happen more and more with such high pumping limits and such low fees. I find it chilling when officials mention the dropping of aquifer levels as being in an “acceptable” range. We need to eliminate this short term thinking. If it is down 5 feet over the last 20 years it will be down 10 feet or more 20 years from now. The “just drill a deeper well” mentality will have dire consequences over the coming decades. I have been encouraged by some of the actions the DNR has taken recently, and we need to give them, or another regulatory body, the tools to manage this resource proactively, not case by case, crisis by crisis.

    • Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 07/17/2013 - 04:21 pm.

      The “just drill a deeper well” mentality will have dire …

      I wish more people were reading your comments. We are beginning to realize the consequences of unrestrained use of natural resources, i,e., they are not infinite.

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