Hugo, a city of lakes, has a grand water conservation plan to end its dependency on wells and instead tap its abundant stormwater for irrigation and, someday, treat it for indoor use.

Three major irrigation projects in the works will save pumping millions of gallons of water from the vast St. Peter-Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer, which by all accounts is shrinking because of overuse by many metro-area cities. In Hugo, it became increasingly apparent to city leaders that pumping precious fresh water out of the ground while sending torrents of stormwater down the watershed to the Mississippi River no longer made sense.

"It's very clear that it's a concern that we're taking water out of the aquifer faster that we're putting back in," said City Council Member Chuck Haas, who also serves on the Metropolitan Council's Water Supply Advisory Committee.

That discussion led to a discovery that stormwater discharged out of Hugo, where 40 percent of the land is covered with lakes and wetlands, exceeded by 10 times the water drawn from wells. The annual stormwater volume stands at 4 billion gallons, compared with 400 million gallons of well water.

The first stormwater project, already in the works, will reduce well pumping by 32 million gallons a year at Oneka Ridge Golf Course. Two other irrigation projects in the Water's Edge and Beaver Ponds neighborhoods, combined with Oneka Ridge, will divert as much as 100 million gallons that otherwise would be pumped from the aquifer.

That's equivalent to saving water for as many as 1,250 housing units — a significant milestone, because the city doesn't want to further deplete groundwater as more houses are built.

Haas, having worked with metro-area groundwater studies and concerns for several years, said the city envisions a need to someday treat its stormwater for indoor use, including drinking, and is exploring how that can be accomplished.

"It's a lofty goal, but we figured we eventually wouldn't take any water out of the aquifer," he said.

Much of the public concern in Washington County over diminishing groundwater began when White Bear Lake's falling levels led to some investigation into whether nearby cities were at fault for overdrawing from the aquifer.

Blame was directed at Hugo, which once boasted the fastest rate of population growth of any metro city.

But City Administrator Bryan Bear said "we've been talking about this long before it was popular to talk about White Bear Lake." The White Bear Lake theory is inconclusive, he said, and unfairly targets Hugo.

Hugo has a capital improvement plan that includes 19 water projects, all conservation measures similar to the golf course irrigation plan. "The significance of this is enormous," Bear said.

Concern over groundwater has grown in Washington County in recent years, and not only because of falling levels on White Bear Lake. Pollution from thousands of failing private septic systems has county officials scrambling, and stormwater runoff has led to excessive phosphorous contamination in lakes and streams.

Earlier this year, the city of Woodbury and Washington County worked together to divert stormwater runoff from an impaired Colby Lake and will use it to irrigate a golf course instead.

Such projects, Haas said, will become more common as more local governments rally to conserve well water. In Hugo, city leaders want to remain independent and self-reliant in water decisions, and the stormwater vision will help them get there.

"We're not the first kid on the block to do a water reuse project, but I don't know anybody who's doing it on this large of a scale," Bear said.