An oblivious state government was behind the slow-motion disaster that struck White Bear Lake, the recreational jewel of the east metro area, a legal team representing lakefront owners alleged Monday.

A trial that is expected to last three weeks stems from a descent of the lake’s water levels over the past decade that had property owners stitching their docks together to extend them hundreds of feet out into the water so they could use their boats.

In her opening statement, plaintiffs’ attorney Katie Crosby Lehmann said that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) now accepts that “business as usual is no longer an option” but still proposes no immediate changes.

“We are at a crossroads and it is time for a disruption of the status quo,” she said.

Attorneys for the DNR denied being “asleep at the wheel” as they put it, countering with evidence of decades of rising concern and action that they said has yielded results.

The choice being presented, said DNR attorney Oliver Larson, is between the plaintiffs’ eagerness for a “big hammer to knock on heads, and a cooperative path of doing science, making plans and executing them.”

‘We can control pumping’

White Bear Lake has rebounded from a low of about 919 feet above sea level four years ago to nearly 923 feet amid strong rainfall. But the plaintiff, the White Bear Lake Restoration Association, notes that a major Ramsey County beach is still closed and that longer-term issues are at stake.

The group says the DNR failed to realize the cumulative impact of groundwater withdrawn by wells as the area’s population grew. Anticipating the state’s argument that much of the problem has to do with climate change, with warmth bringing evaporation, Crosby Lehmann said: “We can’t control the climate. We can control pumping.”

She added: “The DNR has some good ideas but so far has been slow to act and has no plan to make permit changes” when it comes to groundwater allowed to be pumped.

She asked for a court order requiring a 30 percent decrease in water use: “Let’s get more water in and keep it there.”

Arguing for the DNR, Larson said the state will present evidence that much has been done already and water use has dropped significantly. State officials have made “big shifts” in their approach to water, he said, with more tools, money to spend and a sense of urgency.

Shifts and fluctuations

Larson said there have been “sharp reductions in water use” in the northeast metro area, citing a 25 percent drop from 2007 to 2015 in the amount of water used by area communities, with billions fewer gallons needed.

Then too, he said, a look back at the recorded history of the lake for a century or so finds that the “lake is well within its normal range of fluctuation; there’s been a lot of fluctuation in this lake.”

Larson said that while the plaintiffs claim the lake has only reached the recent low point twice before in recorded history, including the Dust Bowl years, the lake was very low for many years before the 1930s.

What the lakefront owners and their supporters who brought suit really want, he said, “is for surface water to be brought in,” likely from the Mississippi River.

“But they don’t want to talk about the expense of that because it’s not a pretty picture,” he said, with price tags that could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars and the unanswered question of who would pay for it.

The case is shaping up to be a long slog through scientific studies and is being waged as a bench trial before Ramsey County District Judge Margaret Marrinan rather than a jury.

DNR experts will testify, Larson said, that climate change and how to deal with it is key, rather than pumping from the ground. Their models show that “very, very tiny changes in evaporation cause huge changes in the lake,” while allowing that “conservation of water is key.”