The Legislature has approved a measure to halt enforcement of a sweeping 2017 court order that reined in water use in communities around White Bear Lake.
The measure, approved by the Senate Monday and the House last week, would effectively pause new regulations imposed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) this winter on a dozen cities in the northeast metro.
Those stem from a lengthy legal battle over low levels of White Bear Lake, which a judge attributed last year to excessive pumping of groundwater that the DNR should have stopped.
The regulations require permitted groundwater users within 5 miles of White Bear Lake to enforce residential sprinkling bans tied to lake levels, set per-capita limits on water use, and develop plans for switching to river or lake water in the future.
Those changes remain in limbo while the affected cities are challenging them through the administrative hearing process. The DNR also appealed the judge’s ruling on Friday, but it has already inserted the court-ordered provisions into groundwater permits.
The legislation would bar the DNR from enforcing the order for one year. It passed the Senate on a 42-25 vote.
Sen. Roger Chamberlain, who sponsored the Senate bill, said during Monday’s debate on the measure that citizens in the affected cities have been denied due process.
“The judge did not simply just order damages to the plaintiffs,” said Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes. “The judge has stepped in and said, ‘You’re going to spend money.’ ”
Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said the Legislature was improperly intervening in an ongoing legal process.
“I think it would set a really terrible precedent, [and] be a very bad move for the Legislature to say when we disagree with a district court’s decision, that we are going to intervene and pause the legal proceedings because we don’t like it,” Latz said.
Gov. Mark Dayton, a DFLer, indicated he was open to delaying the rules.
“If they need another year to try to work out a better resolution, I could certainly — I wouldn’t veto that,” Dayton said at a news conference Monday. “I’m not going to take a position on the bill, one way or the other.”
The judge’s ruling last year could change the habits of hundreds of thousands of people in the metro area. That’s in part because it brought one of the region’s largest water suppliers, St. Paul Regional Water Services, into the new requirements. St. Paul’s 400,000 customers get most of their water from the Mississippi River, but the utility also maintains wells within 5 miles of White Bear Lake.
In a filing Monday asking to stay the district court’s ruling, the DNR said the judge’s order was based on “many erroneous factual and legal conclusions.” It challenged, for example, the court’s conclusions about what constitutes normal White Bear Lake levels.
“DNR will be opening administrative proceedings for 18 challenges [to amendments] required by the district court while simultaneously appealing the judgment as factually and legally erroneous,” the agency said. “This multiplicity of proceedings will lead to extensive and costly litigation that may be rendered moot if this Court reverses any material portion of the district court’s order.”
Regarding St. Paul, it added: “An administrative law judge could find that there is no basis to require the St. Paul Regional Water System to implement a residential watering ban across the entire city of St. Paul given that it draws all or nearly all of its water from non-groundwater sources.”
In an interview last month, Assistant DNR Commissioner Barb Naramore said the agency does not believe a residential irrigation ban would have much effect on White Bear Lake levels.
“The science is continuing to develop,” Naramore said. “We don’t agree with the court’s interpretation of the information that was available at the time of the trial. And there’s additional information available.”