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Minnesota agency studies water levels, use

  • Associated Press
  • April 6, 2014 - 5:15 PM

BELGRADE, Minn. — The state Department of Natural Resources has launched a project to figure out whether current levels of groundwater use are sustainable and whether action is needed to protect water availability in the future.

The project is in response to a 2010 state law directing the agency to address groundwater sustainability. Residents of central Minnesota and elsewhere have been pumping water from the ground for generations, but the rate of use has been on the rise, the St. Cloud Times reported (http://on.sctimes.com/1spvI7S ).

The DNR has assembled a project advisory team comprised of state and local agency experts, irrigators, lake associations and well drillers. The team plans to spend the next few months gathering information, analyzing data and putting together a long-term plan by October.

Mark Hauck, a project manager in the DNR's Bonanza Valley, said people seem to think water is abundant in the land of 10,000 lakes.

"We're starting to see some indications that maybe that might not be the case in some areas of the state," Hauck said. Regions such as southwestern Minnesota are already experiencing a scarcity of groundwater, he said.

The DNR has the authority to issue permits to large water users, which are those who pump 10,000 gallons per day or 1 million gallons per year. They generally include farmers, municipal water supplies, power utilities, food-processing plants and golf courses.

Over the past 25 years, large water users have increased groundwater use by 35 percent. But in the Bonanza Valley, use has risen by 175 percent. While DNR officials emphasize that the Bonanza Valley doesn't have a problem yet, they caution that the trend may not be sustainable.

The DNR's study has raised concern in some circles. Farmers, for example, worry that the project's outcome could result in restrictions on water use.

Ron Halvorson, a member of the project advisory team, is a farmer and irrigator who raises corn and soybeans near Belgrade. He noted that water supplies were being affected by droughts long before the lands were being irrigated.

"Anytime there's a change in water levels or anything, the first finger pointed is at the irrigators," he said.

Hauck said the project is intended to help the DNR improve its permit programs to reflect sustainable use, not to force anyone else to take action.

"We just want to make sure we are using our water so that we can afford our future generations the same flexibility, the same opportunities," he said.

© 2014 Star Tribune