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.

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.

Train wreck?

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.

 

“If you fail to make a choice, then at some point the aquifer will do that for you,” said Jason Moeckel, a water manager for the DNR.

This year the DNR will ask one or two water-strapped communities to bring in their biggest water users — cities, farmers, ethanol plants and others — to negotiate conflicts among themselves. It’s never been done in Minnesota, and though many may like the idea of “local control,” the reality may be much more contentious, officials say.

“Everyone likes [it] until they have to be a bad guy to their neighbor,” said Jim Sehl, a DNR water manager. “That’s going to be the toughest selling point — getting people to accept responsibility for making those tough decisions.”

Such choices may come as a shock to to Minnesotans’ assumptions about water, said Deborah Swackhamer, co-director of the Water Resources Center at the University of Minnesota.Elsewhere in the country per-capita water use is declining, but not in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. That, she said, could require hard adjustments. Higher prices for water could result, or more water recycling, or the controversial idea of allowing cities to re-inject treated water back into aquifers.

And the state may have to start saying no.

“Because they can’t keep giving out permits and waiting for the train to crash,” she said.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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