A Department of Natural Resources plan to rein in the spiraling use of limited groundwater has local officials worried that approvals for new wells may be harder to come by in the future.

Anoka County recently asked the DNR to update local officials on its efforts to set up pilot groundwater management areas, including one in the northeast metro covering Ramsey and Washington counties and part of Anoka County. The DNR is seeing signs that groundwater levels are dropping in some areas near White Bear Lake and that may be affecting the declining water level there and at a few other lakes in northern Washington County, DNR hydrogeologist Paul Putzier said.

So the agency is studying aquifer water supplies to get a handle on the cumulative effect of existing wells. That will provide a solid, scientific basis for permit decisions on new wells in the area, Putzier said.

“Our old system did not take into account the combined effect of water users,” Putzier told officials at the recent meeting in East Bethel. He said that continuing to approve wells on a case-by-case basis won’t ensure adequate water for future generations.

“To manage groundwater effectively, we need to issue permits on a cumulative basis. We just cannot continue to do business as usual in how we use water,” said Putzier, manager of the northeast groundwater management project.

Impact on permits

The DNR regulates requests for wells that pump more than 1 million gallons of water a year, such as municipal wells or those used for irrigation on large farms. At the East Bethel meeting, some officials asked whether the agency might be tougher with permits after the northeast management plan is in place in a year or so.

Putzier said that it is rare to deny a request for a municipal well but that, supported by cumulative groundwater data, the DNR might deny permits for wells with lower priority uses, such as golf course irrigation.

Putzier also said that once the management area is official, the agency will be able to regulate requests for smaller wells there but for now it doesn’t plan to do so. He said residential and other wells pumping less than 1 million gallons account for a small share of well water used in the metro area.

“I am anxious to see how the DNR plays out,” Jamie Schurbon, a water specialist for the Anoka Conservation District, said after the meeting. “The cumulative impact process only works with some sort of restrictions. ... How that will play out will be politically difficult.”

“We want to continue to grow and prosper,” Anoka County Engineer Doug Fischer added. “If there’s going to be some restrictions on our ability to do that, we will have some concerns. Hopefully our growth will be factored in.”

Putzier said afterward that he also has met with groups in Ramsey and Washington counties and understands the worries that local officials may have when they first hear about DNR plans. The agency is charged with protecting state waters so that future generations won’t be affected like homeowners whose docks stand high and dry around White Bear Lake. A group of lake residents has sued the DNR, alleging groundwater mismanagement.

State Rep. Peter Fischer, DFL-Maplewood, who represents the White Bear Lake area, said he has heard concerns from cities and chambers of commerce about whether stricter groundwater management efforts could reduce the number of wells permitted.

“Things may get a little bit tighter,” said Fischer, vice chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee. “We need to work together to make it as fair a process as possible. ... We want to roll it out so it doesn’t inhibit city growth or business opportunity, but we want to use sustainable water management.”

Surface water supplies

Until the early 1980s, surface water (primarily from the Mississippi River) supplied most of the Twin Cities’ municipal water. Now it provides only about 25 percent. The rest is pumped from groundwater wells. Wells cost less than using river water, which requires expensive treatment, officials said.

Putzier noted that pressure on underlying aquifers could be relieved by connecting more cities to the Minneapolis and St. Paul water systems, which have plenty of excess capacity, and tap the Mississippi and a few north metro lakes. Depending on their depth, the region’s seven major aquifers, layered below the metro area, can take years, decades or longer to be recharged by rain or melted snow, he said.

Using a $2 million state legacy grant, the Metropolitan Council has hired four engineering firms to do a regionwide, three-year water supply study. It will include an assessment of the feasibility for some cities in the White Bear Lake area to switch from wells to Mississippi River water. Two or three other areas in the Twin Cities, possibly including the Eagan-Inver Grove Heights area, will also be analyzed for potential use of stormwater runoff, groundwater, river water or other resources, said Ali Elhassan, water supply planning manager for the Met Council.

“The question is, is it financially feasible to put more people on surface water?” said Sandy Rummel, chairwoman of the council’s Metropolitan Area Water Supply Advisory Committee. A related question is whether the region should share the higher cost to encourage cities to use surface water in order to preserve groundwater for future use, Rummel said.

The former legislator said the Met Council and DNR are not out to impose water controls. “Nobody is trying to take over anything. We are trying to create the information needed so local government can make these decisions,” she said. “We are not going to solve this unless we solve it together.”

The council has developed and continues to refine a metro groundwater model, using consumption rates and available aquifer recharge data obtained from monitoring wells. One scenario modeled shows that if 24 of the region’s 186 cities shifted from well to river water, aquifer drawdown would slow and, in some areas, including White Bear Lake, begin to replenish, a council newsletter said.

Gene Merriam, president of the nonprofit Freshwater Society, said a change to cumulative water usage permits for new wells is long overdue.

“The White Bear Lake situation exemplifies the problem of pumping until we have a problem and then trying to figure out how to fix it,” he said. Merriam, who was DNR commissioner from 2004 to 2007, said that more groundwater monitoring wells are needed but that once adequate data is collected, the DNR may need to deny some well water requests in areas with diminishing groundwater.

Available data and Met Council modeling suggest the Twin Cities groundwater supply “is getting pretty stressed ... it is not sustainable at current usage rates,” said Deborah Swackhamer, co-director of the Water Resources Center at the University of Minnesota.

Still, Swackhamer thinks there is time to restore diminishing aquifers: “Overall, we are heading in the right direction to avoid having a crisis determine what we do, as opposed to having developed sustainable water management.”