White Bear Lake is quiet now, snow-covered and locked in ice. But months of simmering debate over how to replenish the shrinking lake may yield a path to solution.

Over the past several months, 10 northeast metro communities, the Metropolitan Council and the Minnesota Legislature have converged in a swirl of legal and policy actions to address what to do about both the lake’s dwindling and historically low water level and the broader issue of ensuring the region’s future water supply.

At stake is potentially millions of dollars needed to restore White Bear Lake by pushing many suburban communities to find new sources of water that would take pressure off the aquifer that feeds the lake.

Pressing the issue is a 15-month-old lawsuit filed by a group called the White Bear Lake Restoration Association against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). A second group, called the White Bear Lake Homeowners Association, now has joined as a plaintiff in the suit, which claims that the DNR has allowed lake levels to plummet by issuing too many permits to cities to draw groundwater from the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer. That vast store of underground water stretches from Missouri to Upper Michigan and supplies thousands of municipal and private wells.

On Feb. 24, the disputing parties will meet privately in a mediation session with retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice James Gilbert in an effort to stave off a trial later this year.

“The goal is to try to come up with a remedy through the DNR that could work toward alleviating the lake levels, including trying to return the aquifer to levels it should normally be,” said Dick Allyn, an attorney representing the plaintiffs.

Allyn’s goals include reaching an agreement that would restore the lake’s water level and get the DNR to move more quickly to establish a groundwater management area in the northeast metro. The dwindling aquifer, Allyn said, is a regional problem that was identified in a DNR study as far back as 1998.

DNR seeks allies

The DNR asked 10 communities late last year to band together and join the lawsuit as defendants, a step that would give each a direct voice in negotiations and help give weight to the agency’s legal case.

That case ultimately could have a bearing on the water permits issued by the DNR, which dictates how much water the communities can draw from the aquifer; if the permits are curtailed, the communities would have to look elsewhere for water.

For the past several weeks, White Bear Lake, White Bear Township, Hugo, Centerville, Mahtomedi, Lino Lakes, Vadnais Heights, Forest Lake, Columbus and North St. Paul have debated the DNR’s request.

So far, only White Bear Township has joined the suit. White Bear Lake will discuss it again Tuesday night.

The other communities have opted out, with some citing the uncertain expense. Some, such as Forest Lake, point out that they draw water from other aquifers, so they shouldn’t have to pay the costs of joining the lawsuit.

Bill Short, White Bear Township’s clerk/treasurer, said the Town Board’s decision doesn’t necessarily mean it sides with the DNR. But, he added, the township wanted to have a voice in decisions involving the fate of its water supply.

“There’s no guarantee our participation as an intervenor is going to be essential, but we don’t know that, and we didn’t want to take that chance,” he said.

Similarly, City Manager Mark Sather of White Bear Lake is concerned about protecting his city’s water interests, especially if a potential remedy would mean curtailing or closing city wells.

“That’s what’s scary,” he said.

Like officials in Vadnais Heights and Centerville, Sather said the lawsuit is premature, that more time is needed for studies to more clearly connect the dots between the lower lake level — which he noted is a common concern — and its exact cause.

There also is the question of fairness, Sather said. Hundreds of private wells in nearby communities like Willernie, Birchwood Village and Dellwood also draw from the aquifer yet have been spared the potential legal bills.

The 10 cities asked by the DNR to join the suit were identified in a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) preliminary study on which the lawsuit largely is based. It found that groundwater withdrawals from 1980 to 2010 have more than doubled as the northeast metro has grown. It also pointed to the withdrawals as the likely reason White Bear Lake has lost about one-fourth of its volume over the past decade. The USGS is conducting a follow-up study that is far broader in scope.

Other steps weighed

As the lawsuit proceeds, both the Metropolitan Council and state lawmakers are looking at steps in the coming legislative session that could lead to solutions.

In 2013, the Legislature approved $2.5 million from the Clean Water Legacy Fund to evaluate water supplies across the seven-county metro area, paying particular attention to communities in northeastern Ramsey County. The Met Council’s progress report to the 2014 Legislature offers three potential alternatives to restore White Bear Lake. They include:

• Connecting some or all of 13 communities studied (the 10 in the USGS study, plus Circle Pines, Columbus and Shoreview) to St. Paul’s water system. That would involve piping water from the Mississippi River through a chain of lakes to the city’s McCarron Water Treatment Plant in Maplewood, which would need to be upgraded, then directing it through a circuit of new water pipelines connecting the communities. The plan also calls for installing a series of booster pumps to move the water along.

• Connecting the communities to the Mississippi, but bypass the McCarron plant in favor of a more direct route through a new treatment plant that would treat and distribute the water.

•Augmenting White Bear Lake directly, either with water from the Mississippi or St. Croix rivers. The Met Council estimates 4 billion gallons of water a year over five years initially would be needed before the rate would be decreased. Both plans would entail construction of pipelines and pumping stations. The report notes that drawing water from the St. Croix poses more problems, however, because the river is federally protected. It also would likely cost more because of a 300-foot difference in elevation.

The cost and funding sources for the plans have yet to be identified, although a final report is due by the end of this year.

State Rep. Peter Fischer, DFL-Maplewood, and state Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, both said last week that White Bear Lake, and associated issues of water management in the east metro, will be getting a lot of attention from legislators this session.

“One thing we have to keep in mind: It’s not just about the level of the lake, it’s about the amount of water we’re pumping out of the aquifer,” Fischer said.