Public input sought on Lutsen water use

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 30, 2011 - 12:09 AM

Poplar River extractions have become controversial.

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A flyfishing lesson with Adam Harju at Lutsen Lodge and Resort.

Photo: Jim Buchta, Star Tribune

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Over the objections of anglers and a broad array of conservation groups, the Legislature last session gave Lutsen Mountain Corporation the right to withdraw up to 150 million gallons of water annually from the Poplar River on the North Shore to make snow for its ski business.

Now the DNR wants to amend the already marginal minimal flow guidelines established for the water extraction, and it has opened its proposal to public comment.

The Poplar River is a designated trout stream, and water withdrawals from such streams have been illegal since 1977. The exception has been Lutsen, whose previous DNR permit allowed it 12.6 million gallons of Poplar River water annually.

Beginning in 2001, Lutsen exceeded the permit, taking 60 million gallons a year for snow-making, according to the DNR. In some years since, it has extracted as many as 108 million gallons.

Alternatively, Lutsen could make snow from water pumped from Lake Superior, but has said the cost would be high.

The DNR knew of the withdrawals and acknowledged their potential threat to the river's fish but neither authorized nor prohibited them, citing Lutsen's role as a North Shore employer.

The Poplar River is home to steelhead (migratory rainbow trout) and brook trout, among other fish.

Without advance public notice, Lutsen, in the last legislative session, through a Twin Cities lobbying firm, successfully proposed expanding its permit to allow annual extractions of up to 150 million gallons. The chief concession gained by the DNR and conservationists was a requirement that withdrawals stop if river flows fell below 15 cubic feet per second (cfs) for five consecutive days -- a figure lower than what DNR hydrologists had recommended.

Now the DNR proposes to allow Lutsen to withdraw its 150 million gallons at flows as low as 5 cfs, noting flows of the Poplar River have been at or below 15 cfs for weeks, because of drought in that part of the state.

Separately, Lutsen said it recognizes that extracting water from the Poplar River is no longer sustainable, noting effects of periodic drought and opposition from conservationists and others, and it is working to secure public funding to build a water pipe from Lake Superior. Some skiers have suggested boycotting Lutsen over the extractions.

In a press release last week, the DNR cited "the potential economic impacts to the [Lutsen] community'' in supporting a new permit with the 5 cfs flow. In the statement, the DNR said nothing of the economic impact of fishing on the North Shore, which is likely to significantly exceed that of Lutsen. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr noted, however, that an alternate source of Lutsen snowmaking water is needed within three years.

The draft DNR permit and additional information can be found at www.dnr.state.mn.us/input/issues/poplar_river/index.html. The public may submit comments Friday to publiccomment.dnr@state.mn.us.

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