The Mighty Mississipp’ has inspired writers and artists, helped whole cities sprout, is one of the world’s major highways of commerce and gives life to millions as it meanders through the nation’s heartland.

And it could be the salvation of White Bear Lake.

A plan to divert water from the Mississippi River, which would be unprecedented in its scope in the Twin Cities, is being looked at as one possible solution to the plummeting level of White Bear Lake, which has lost about one-fourth of its volume over the past decade. The big question is not so much how to get the water there, but how much it would cost and who would pay. With $2 million in Clean Water Legacy funds from the 2013 Legislature, the Metropolitan Council is undertaking an effort to see if such a plan, with other options, might be the answer. It’s the first step in what will be a comprehensive look at water supplies in 186 communities across the region, which are being strained as the population grows, said Ali Elhassan, the council’s water supply planning manager.

None more so than in the northeast metro. “That’s a hot spot at this point because of White Bear Lake and its declining water levels,” he said. Another $537,000 from the Legislature will pay for the U.S. Geological Survey to continue its study of the interaction of groundwater and surface water in the northeast metro.

“We don’t want to have another White Bear Lake in the metropolitan area,” Elhassan said, adding that White Bear Lake is not the only one that is shrinking, just the biggest.

The lake not only gives the city its name, identity and quality of life, it draws thousands of anglers and boaters who help buoy the local economy. Declining property values that ripple through the community also have been a concern, and local beaches have closed. A lawsuit filed by a local group, the White Bear Lake Restoration Association, against the state Department of Natural Resources claims the lake’s decline has hurt the local economy.

The initial study will focus on two options: tapping water directly from the Mississippi via a pipeline and hooking into St. Paul’s regional water system, which also draws most of its water from the river.

Besides St. Paul, the water system serves 10 nearby suburbs, including those in the northeast. It gets water from the river via a chain of lakes, among them Charley, Pleasant, Sucker and Vadnais. White Bear Lake is only about 5 miles from Pleasant and Sucker lakes.

St. Paul, which mainly uses surface water for its supply, has surplus capacity. By contrast, White Bear Lake is fed by groundwater from the Jordan/Prairie du Chien aquifer, a massive underground sea embedded among rock and sand that also serves as the city’s water source. Strains on the aquifer have been blamed for the receding lake.

The St. Paul system already augments two smaller nearby lakes during dry spells with water from the Mississippi: Snail Lake in Shoreview and Gilfillan Lake in North Oaks, said Steve Schneider, the utility’s general manager.

“It’s feasible,” Schneider said of the option for White Bear Lake, though plans are still conceptual. “We look at ourselves as a possible solution.”

Issues surround plan

One issue with the river augmentation plan is making sure invasive species in the river, particularly zebra mussels, are screened out, Elhassan said. And while the engineering is feasible, the main concern is figuring the cost. “At this point, we don’t know — and that’s the question everyone wants answered,” he said. The study will try to answer that, along with identifying possible funding sources.

The same applies to the notion of tapping into St. Paul’s system. Both ideas would move White Bear Lake to more reliance on abundant surface water supplies, Elhassan said, and away from the more precarious aquifer source. St. Paul’s system could provide another 30 million gallons of water daily. “There is potential for conversion there,” he said.

The Metropolitan Council is due to report its initial study findings to the Legislature in January.

One group that will be watching closely is the Friends of the Mississippi River. “We would like to see them address the root cause of the problem, rather than addressing the symptoms,” said Whitney Clark, executive director of the group, which advocates for policies protecting the river and other water resources.

“The problem with White Bear Lake is unsustainable groundwater use,” Clark said, and that issue isn’t confined to one lake or community. “When you’re using water faster than the aquifer can replenish itself, that’s a serious problem.”

Urgency in community

Scott Mueller, who owns a funeral home in White Bear Lake, is chairman of the White Bear Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors. He also sits on the Lake Level Resolution Committee of the White Bear Lake Conservation District, a role that has taught him more about the area’s hydrogeology than he ever thought possible. “It’s surprising what you learn,” he said.

The panel has been studying the issue for months and offered six options aimed at either bolstering the lake level directly or reducing reliance on the aquifer as a water source, including the two being looked at by the Metropolitan Council.

“My fear is that state agencies aren’t urgent enough about this,” he said. “I’m worried that they’re going to spend money on a report that’s just going to lead to more money being spent on another report.”

That sense of urgency is growing in the community, which not only takes its name from the lake but values it in both tangible and intangible ways.

“Over the past couple of years the conversation in White Bear Lake has changed,” Mueller said. “It used to be viewed as just a home-on-the-lake kind of issue. But people are realizing it’s not just about the people who live on the lake, it’s not just the business community — it’s about all of us. It’s all interwoven.”

One option urged by the panel already is in place: a water conservation campaign launched by the Chamber of Commerce this summer that has spilled over among residents as well. “Doing Our Part, Saving the Lake” signs, with a friendly polar bear and life preserver, are everywhere in downtown White Bear Lake, where more than 50 business are participating.

The average city resident uses 120 gallons of water a day. “You can reduce that by 20 gallons and not affect your daily life — it’s just being aware,” Mueller said. The program offers more than a dozen easy steps to do that and asks businesses to pledge implementing four of them.

It’s had tangible results in his own business, Mueller said, dropping water consumption 44 percent. “I’m still in business — it’s not like we’re not washing hands and things like that,” he said. “We’re still doing the things we’re supposed to.”

Conservation isn’t exciting, but it can have a dramatic effect on the aquifer and is an essential part of the solution that will involve multiple concerned parties, Mueller said.

“I’m a business guy. I’m used to results,” Mueller said. “I’m convinced we can fix this.”