Feb. 24: Minnesota draining its supplies of water

Nature can’t keep up with demand, prompting disputes in some cities.

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Kimmes Bauer Well Drilling of Hastings drilled an irrigation well at a farm east of Blooming Prairie Wednesday morning. The number of irrigated acres in Minnesota has risen with the price of food and commodities.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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It didn’t take Daniel Damm long to figure out why the water from his faucets suddenly turned black. His well was running dry because the turkey farm up the road near Willmar had sucked down the local aquifer.

In Hibbing, where one of three city wells has dried up, local officials have quietly asked the state to help resolve a water dispute with a taconite company that is one of the town’s biggest employers.

And along the shores of White Bear Lake, homeowners found themselves mowing beyond the end of their docks last summer because one of the Twin Cities’ premier lakes is shrinking. They filed suit, charging the state government with failing to manage its most precious resource — water.

Minnesotans have always prided themselves on their more than 10,000 lakes, great rivers and the deep underground reservoirs that supply three-fourths of the state’s residents with naturally clean drinking water.

But many regions in the state have reached the point where people are using water — and then sending it downstream — faster than the rain and snow can replenish it.

Last year, Minnesotans used a record amount of water, fueling a rising number of conflicts from the Iron Range to Pipestone.

Now state regulators, who have never said no to a water permit, for the first time are planning to experiment with more stringent rules that will require some local communities to allocate scarce water.

“It’s scary,” said Dennis Healy, who runs the Pipestone Rural Water System in southwest Minnesota. “The time is coming that there is going to have to be some rationing.”

In the short term, that means farmers and businesses may have to share water with competitors, or even leave the state. Eventually, homeowners may face higher water bills and routine watering bans.The prolonged drought that scorched Minnesota last summer is not to blame, but it provides a glimpse into how climate change, with its weather extremes, could make matters even worse. From now on droughts may be more severe. And then when it rains, it often rains so hard that much of the water runs off the land before it can soak into the ground.

In Minnesota, how the rain falls and the snow melts is crucial because virtually all the state’s water comes from the sky. Over the centuries, water accumulated below the surface, slowly seeping into the ground and the aquifers that store many billions of gallons between grains of sand and fissures in the rock. Today that groundwater and the aquifers supply most of the homes, ethanol plants, millions of irrigated acres, swimming pools and golf courses across the state.

Rising demand

It all works fine as long as water is not used faster than the rain and snow can replace it. But now rising demand — from farm irrigation, a growing ethanol industry, a rising population — is pumping more water out of the ground than ever before.

And once it leaves the aquifer, it’s gone — routed through storm sewers or water treatment plants and into streams, rivers, and sooner or later, out of the state altogether.“We are not running out of water,” said Jim Stark, head of the Minnesota office of the U.S. Geological Survey. “But we are depleting it.”

The most visible example is White Bear Lake.Since 1980, nearby communities have more than doubled the volume of water they pump from the Prairie du Chien aquifer they share with the lake, primarily because of higher residential demand. Now, the lake drops even during wet periods.

Once neighbors use that water — for showers, cooking, watering lawns — it becomes wastewater and is sent to the Pig’s Eye treatment plant near St. Paul, where it is cleaned and released into the Mississippi River — short-circuiting the natural system that keeps water in the lake.The U.S. Geological Survey found recently that it would take annual rainfall that is 4 inches above normal just to keep White Bear Lake where it is now.

“We move it downstream,” said Stark. “We don’t recycle it.”

Last year the White Bear Lake Restoration Association filed suit against the DNR, alleging that it violated environmental standards by allowing local communities to take more water than is sustainable for the lake and aquifer. It asked the court to establish protected water levels for both.

DNR officials declined to comment on the pending complaint.

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