Prodded in part by accusations flowing from the dramatic shrinkage of White Bear Lake, east metro cities are taking steps to pull back — by billions of gallons a year — their claim on water deep underground.
Strategies range from new technology enlightening people for the first time on what that long steamy shower just cost the aquifer, to patrolling for leaks by checking on mysterious usage at 3 a.m.
In Woodbury, the state has endorsed a plan to twist back the spigot on hundreds of millions of gallons of water blasting round the clock to keep industrial toxins from spreading underground.
St. Paul has surrendered its legal right to 14 billion gallons a year from underground sources — an admission that its once robust industrial base, featuring heavy water users such as breweries, has literally dried up.
A lawsuit accusing water-thirsty suburban sprawl of contributing to the draining of White Bear Lake is a factor in a new sense of urgency. But there’s also news that the earth beneath our feet is sinking from water being used at a faster rate than it’s returning underground.
Suburbs in particular — relying far more than central cities on aquifers for cheap, pure water — are at risk, conservationists say.
“We’re not doing this for White Bear Lake,” said Hugo city administrator Bryan Bear, who expects his city alone will save hundreds of millions of gallons annually from a variety of new measures, including reuse of rainwater to keep a golf course green. “We’re doing it because it’s right. Will it also affect a lake level someplace? I can’t guarantee it.”
Meanwhile: White Bear Lake itself is doing better than it has in years. One pounding rainfall after another this summer and fall has lake levels at their highest point in nearly a decade.
Rare is the new water conservation measure that is without its cost, however — either in dollar terms or in terms of risk and misunderstanding.
Kari LeMay of Shoreview was among a pioneering group of Minnesotans to get real-time data on her family’s water use. But the numbers couldn’t be right: The data showed her household’s use “spiked extremely high.” Yet with all the rain, “I think I’ve only used the sprinkler once all year.”
But the worried e-mail she shot City Hall actually pleased utilities chief Mark Maloney. He was about to pursue the details of her use, to make sure nothing was wrong, but bottom line, the note showed the plan works: “She’s noticing.”
Bear gives many talks around the state on his city’s groundbreaking efforts on stormwater reuse. And when he does, he makes clear there are drawbacks to keep an eye on. People who think they live on a sparkling water feature, for instance, can find them suddenly sucked dry to supply thirsty lawns after crews drop pumps into them.
The 15 percent reduction in the volume of water being blasted to contain the 3M pollution plume in Washington County will last only as long as regulators are satisfied it’s still doing the job properly, said Tim Lockrem, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency project manager. “But we want to make sure the old amount wasn’t more than we need. It’s a lot of water.”
White Bear Lake itself and 18 other suburbs across the metro reckon they’ll save 9 million gallons a year by swapping out fewer than 1,000 water-wasting toilets, clothes washers and sprinklers during the first half of this year. But that cost $80,000 in inducements to change.
Paul Gardner of Shoreview, a longtime water conservation enthusiast, is a big fan of the technology that revealed to him that “our clothes washer that came with the house in 1997 uses 45 gallons for each large load. That’s a lot. Today’s front-loading models use a lot less.”
The problem, though, he also quickly grasped: Water is so cheap, it’s not going to persuade many people to swap out just to be an eco warrior. “That 45 gallon washing machine load? It costs me less than 2 cents for the whole load. Compare that to today’s cheap gas at $2 a gallon. So we might wait until it breaks down because the payback period would be — who knows? I would probably be dead by then.”
‘Wildly important goal’
Conversely, St. Paul credits water conservation measures — ground cover instead of lawns for instance — to a big drop in the use of water. The city water agency’s total use is down by nearly 7 billion gallons a year since 1988 and has dipped to a low it hasn’t reached since the early 1960s.
That’s partly because previous massive water users such as the former Ford plant are now vanished. The city’s top 10 water users as a group today are annually soaking up 1.3 billion gallons less than the top 10 did in 1975, when the list was populated by the likes of Schmidt Brewing.
St. Paul’s surrender of its claim on billions of gallons of groundwater recognizes that it was legally entitled to draw way more groundwater than it ever really used, said Jim Graupmann, assistant general manager of St. Paul Regional Water Services, which also supplies some neighboring towns, mainly from the Mississippi River.
“In fact, in 2015, we did not use any groundwater,” he said. “In most years, our usage of groundwater has been in the range of 10 percent of our total.”
Elsewhere in the east, though, groundwater use can be the only source, and state regulators are watching more closely than ever to see that supplies aren’t endangered.
“A growing number of communities continue to over-pump drinking water from declining aquifers while dreaming of further population increases and economic expansion,” Steve Woods, director of the St. Paul-based Freshwater Society, warned not long ago. “The realities and the dreams don’t match; available supplies won’t support future demands unless the community actively manages the situation.”
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reports that some city officials are asking them what power they possess to limit water use by the owners of their own private wells. It isn’t hard to imagine the outrage if it ever reaches that point.
But pressure to conserve is rising. Clint Gridley, city administrator in Woodbury, has described water as a “WIG,” a “wildly important goal” — one that has leapt from “not being on our list at all, to being at the top of our list. Water is the one thing we can’t do without, it’s an essential part of living. You can live with bumpy roads but not without water.”