City leaders in Hugo have asked the Legislature for $3 million in bonding funds to convert stormwater for irrigation use.

The money would build three projects that would conserve an estimated 54 million gallons of well water a year in the city of 14,000 residents. Substituting stormwater for irrigation in the Water's Edge and Beaver Ponds neighborhoods and some smaller areas near County Road 8 would move Hugo into the forefront of metro-area cities experimenting with ways to end traditional dependency on diminishing supplies of groundwater.

"It's our No. 1 priority," said Mayor Tom Weidt. "We want to be a leader in the Twin Cities. We want to preserve our right to clean drinking water."

This spring, Hugo will proceed with its first stormwater initiative, which will reduce well pumping by 32 million gallons a year at Oneka Ridge Golf Course. The city's campaign to "Reduce, Reuse, Replenish," also aims to improve water quality.

"We want to be good stewards of the aquifer. It's the right thing to do," said City Administrator Brian Bear. "Because there's been a lot of attention to this issue, we've been encouraged to keep going."

Hugo's activist approach to water reuse started with the realization that drawing precious freshwater out of the ground for irrigation while sending torrents of stormwater down the watershed to the Mississippi River was wasteful. The annual stormwater volume in Hugo stands at 4 billion gallons, compared with 400 million gallons of well water taken from the St. Peter-Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer.

Coincidentally, the $3 million request in the state bonding bill equals revenue that would be lost over 20 years as Hugo moves more irrigation customers to stormwater use. Costs include modifying stormwater retention ponds and installing pipes to funnel stormwater. A third cost involves installing filtration piping in the ground to send reused water back to the aquifer.

Within a few years, Bear said, the volume of water sent back into the ground will exceed what's being pumped out. The city also estimates its reuse effort will remove 800 pounds of phosphorous from water bodies by 2015.

The Hugo legislation, H.F. 2337, has undergone a first reading and has been sent to the House Committee on Capital Investment. Reps. Linda Runbeck, Peter Fischer and Kathy Lohmer are sponsoring the bill. Sen. Roger Chamberlain is sponsoring the companion bill, S.F. 1712.

Hugo's overall capital improvement plan includes 19 water projects, all conservation measures similar to the golf course irrigation plan. "There seems to be a lot of talk about water," Bear said. "We think we've been leading on it in a lot of ways."

Concern over diminishing groundwater has exploded in Washington County and elsewhere in the metro area in recent years, and not only because of falling levels on White Bear Lake and other lakes. Washington County commissioners have expressed concern about pollution from thousands of failing private septic systems, while city officials in Woodbury and elsewhere have taken action to reduce phosphorous contamination in lakes and streams.