A closed beach. Docks sitting high and dry. Sand flats where anglers once trolled with Rapala lures. No one has to look at the official water level measurements of White Bear Lake, recently at some of its lowest recorded levels, to understand how much this beloved lake is ailing.
As one of the crown jewels in the Twin Cities lakes system, its future matters not just to the homeowners who ring its shoreline but to those who travel from near and far to enjoy this sparkling natural resource. The need for action to revive the lake is clear and the urgency understandable.
Given the complexity of solutions for White Bear Lake and the potential cost, the Minnesota Legislature has a role to play in restoring the health of this state resource. At the same time, legislators need to move strategically rather than rush narrow fixes with questionable effectiveness simply for the sake of saying that something is being done.
That’s why a measure calling for $800,000 in state money for an engineering study on the possibility of augmenting White Bear Lake with Mississippi River water is premature and of dubious value. The measure, championed by DFL lawmakers from the White Bear Lake area, is under consideration as lawmakers finalize the sprawling omnibus supplemental budget bill in conference committee as the session winds to an end.
Proponents of the legislation argue that the lake is in such dire straits that rapid action is critical. They say setting aside funds for the study now would make augmentation projects “shovel-ready” once the final results of broader water management studies commissioned by the Legislature in 2013 are released.
Findings from one of the studies, led by a respected scientist at the Metropolitan Council, are expected this fall. However, an update on the work released earlier this year suggests that augmentation of White Bear with river water would be costly and of questionable effectiveness, with much of the water draining out of the lake.
Other experts and analysis, such as a 2013 report by the respected Freshwater Society, also sensibly suggest that the lake’s shrinkage should be treated as a symptom of a greater problem: fast-growing communities’ reliance on groundwater for municipal drinking supplies. The lake’s level appears to be linked to water levels in the aquifers beneath it.
Rather than pre-empting the Met Council study and focusing on the band-aid solution of augmentation, policymakers should be getting serious about fixing the main problem: the unsustainability of current water management in the northeast metro and elsewhere. A map from the Met Council suggests that groundwater drawdowns are a concern in a number of areas around the state, putting water supplies and other lakes, streams and wetlands at risk.
Finding the most cost-effective solutions would not only help solve White Bear Lake’s woes, but would also help power growth for decades to come. Reliable, affordable water supplies are critical for state and regional prosperity.
Moving forward may well involve some type of augmentation of the lake, but it also will likely include shifting many communities now relying on groundwater over to surface water, such from as a river. That’s an expensive and time-consuming proposition, one that may involve new infrastructure to hook up to existing water treatment plants or even building new ones. That’s why the real urgency involves outlining an integrated, cost-effective approach.
Throughout much of the Twin Cities’ history, municipalities relied on surface water. Minneapolis and St. Paul still do, but more than 70 percent of the region now relies on less-expensive-to-treat groundwater.
White Bear Lake is a reminder that Minnesota can no longer take its water resources for granted. Strategic thinking, not piecemeal fixes, is needed to preserve these assets for future generations and growth.