Soon, the problem could spread beyond White Bear Lake. If the Twin Cities metro area grows by half a million people over the next two decades, at current rates of water use, whole sections of the Twin Cities’ aquifers will drop by half, even with normal rainfall, hydrologists say. At that point, state regulators would shut down the pumps to protect what’s left. Even if water use drops by 30 percent over the next decade, there would still be problems in some parts of the metro area, said Ali Elhassan, water supply manager for the Metropolitan Council.
“People plan for the future,” he said. “Well, the future is now.”
The future arrived some time ago in the perennially dry southwest corner of Minnesota, where the geology is not well designed for holding water underground. Healy, of the Pipestone Rural Water System, has had to tell badly needed businesses to find somewhere else to set up shop because the rural water system couldn’t give them enough water — including a large dairy operation that recently took 15 jobs to South Dakota. “In the last year or so we’ve had a lot more requests from people whose wells are failing,” he said. “People are hauling water.”
The demands of agriculture are especially worrisome, he said. Pattern tiling, which drains precipitation off agricultural fields and into ditches, is on the rise, he said.“While I understand the need and benefit, the idea of discharging that water into the nearest stream and rushing it to the Gulf of Mexico as fast as we can does not makes much sense to me,” he said.
High-capacity irrigation wells are also sprouting all over central and western Minnesota. In 2010, only 2 to 3 percent of the state’s cropland was irrigated, but that alone used 29 percent of water pumped out of Minnesota’s ground that year. But in 2012, the state received nearly 200 irrigation permit requests, with another 200 expected this year — two to three times the norm, DNR officials said.
Alan Peterson, head of the Minnesota Irrigators Association and a farmer near Clear Lake, said irrigation is a better form of crop insurance than crop insurance. Lately, the number of irrigated acres in Minnesota has risen steadily with the price of food and commodities. Because when prices are at record highs, the hundreds of thousands it costs for an irrigation system pays off.
“I can double my yield with irrigation,” Peterson said.
Increasingly, however, agricultural water use is driving up disputes. In 2007, when Dan Damm complained to the DNR about the neighboring turkey farm, his was one of just a handful of complaints filed with the state.
“We turned on the water and couldn’t figure out why it was black,” he said. But as a heavy-equipment operator, he knew a lot about the local hydrology, and he figured that the turkey farm had dropped the top of the aquifer below the bottom of his well. The pump was sending up black gunk from the bottom. Once verified, the farm operation paid to replace it, a requirement of state law.
“People have to realize, it’s humans before turkeys,” Damm said.
Last year, the number of well interference complaints spiked at 12 — most of them related to irrigation — compared to a previous yearly average of two. DNR officials say that greatly underrepresents the problem because people often resolve disputes themselves, don’t file a complaint for fear of creating conflicts, or don’t know that they can. The state is also being asked to resolve much bigger problems.
This year, the city of Hibbing finally asked the DNR to weigh in on its ongoing dispute with Hibbing Taconite. For years, the company has been draining the water that collects in one of its massive pits in order to get to the ore that’s below — and then sending the water into a nearby river and eventually Lake Superior. But a side effect is to lower the area’s entire water table; now the level of the aquifer is low enough that one of the city’s primary wells has dried up. The other two are running at capacity, said Gary Myers, general manager of the Hibbing Public Utilities Commission.
He said the city has found a new water source in a different aquifer, but it’s 2½ miles away from town, adding considerably to the $1.2 million cost. Now the question is who should pay.
“That’s an awful lot for us,” Healy said. “But it’s hard to put pressure on them. ”
Officials at Hibbing Taconite declined to comment but said in a statement that negotiations are underway.
DNR water officials say it’s time for local communities to start making decisions on water, rather than the state, because the current rates of use are not sustainable.