Lutsen Mountain can drain the drought-stricken Poplar River nearly dry to make snow this winter, but it will have to begin using water from Lake Superior within three years.

Charles Skinner, one of the owners, said the company is working on a $3 million plan to pipe lake water to the resort, a public golf course, other resorts and homeowners. He said the company is seeking a combination of public and private financing.

Tom Landwehr, commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, said the decision to allow continued use of river water this winter was the best way to balance protection of the river -- a protected trout stream and incubator for a number of Lake Superior fish -- and the economic needs of the North Shore.

"We don't take this decision lightly," he said. "But essentially we are between a rock and a hard place."

Conservationists and environmental groups said they were outraged at the choice because they believe Lutsen, which has routinely taken far more water than that it was legally allowed for a decade, should have solved its problem long ago.

"This is a self-created problem that could have easily been avoided with better planning," said Henry VanOffelen, natural resource scientist of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

The controversy over Lutsen's dependence on the Poplar River erupted last spring when the resort's owners won special dispensation from the Legislature to use as much water as it needed as long as the flow was above 15 cubic feet per second. For years, the DNR had allowed the resort to violate its permit on water use in the hope that it would figure out another source.

But now, after a drought, the Poplar's flow is down to 15 cubic feet per second or less. Lutsen appealed to the DNR for a special permit, which the DNR put up for public comment last week. Landwehr said the river is so low now that this winter it probably will freeze to the bottom anyway, killing the fish that are there. Lutsen's drawdown, he said, would make little difference to the fish.

More than 600 people weighed in, an extraordinary number for a small river and a regional issue. But those in favor of Lutsen's request outnumbered those against -- 396 to 220.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394