The Dakota County Board will vote next week on a one-year moratorium on industrial well drilling in response to a local company's plan to dig two wells and ship millions of gallons of water by rail to the Southwest.

The drilling ban would likely be the first of its kind in Minnesota, but local officials worry that Lakeville-based railway will be back with a new plan to ship water to the desert.

State officials quickly shot down the previous proposal, but it rattled the county as parched and rapidly growing communities in the Southwestern states look for new sources of fresh water.

"Right now we don't really have a guaranteed way to prevent water exportation," said Valerie Grover, the county's groundwater protection supervisor. "This is kind of buying us a little more time."

The proposal would temporarily ban new wells that draw more than 10,000 gallons a day or a million gallons a year for commercial, institutional or food-processing purposes. It would not prohibit the replacement of existing wells or those used for irrigation of farmland.

"It shouldn't impact farmers in any way," Grover said.

The County Board will hold a public hearing and vote on the measure May 5.

Empire Building Investments, the real estate arm of Lakeville-based Progressive Rail, filed a preliminary application to drill two wells on land it owns in Randolph and pump up to 6,000 gallons of water per minute. It planned to ship the water by rail to states in the Colorado River basin, where high demand exists for water to drink and irrigate crops.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said then that the plan wasn't likely to be approved and hasn't received any similar applications since, officials said.

Dakota County Commissioner Joe Atkins said he is hearing that an investor group may be working with Progressive Rail to try again, perhaps by buying local farms and drilling on the land or by getting access to a different aquifer.

"It's my understanding that something is, in fact, in the works," he said.

Calls to Progressive Rail were not returned last week.

Atkins said the response to the proposed moratorium has been overwhelmingly favorable, with hundreds of residents expressing their desire to "do everything we possibly can to avoid exporting massive amounts of water outside of Dakota County."

The coronavirus pandemic has people opposing exportation more than ever because they want to avoid another public health crisis, he said. About 90% of Dakota County residents get their water from the ground.

If the moratorium passes, county staffers and officials plan to study the impact on the county of exporting large volumes of water, Atkins said. Projections show water quantity issues will become more significant as the population grows, he said. What they find may launch broader discussions about stricter state laws.

Rodney Born, president of the Minnesota Well Water Association, said his group supports the moratorium.

"We want to keep [our water] in Minnesota. We don't want it shipped out of state," he said. "Once it leaves the state, it doesn't return."

Environmental groups also said they approve the moratorium. Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, called it a "good strategy" to preserve the state's most valuable resource.

"I think it's a completely reasonable approach," said Carrie Jennings, research and policy director at the St. Paul-based Freshwater Society. "Everyone is struggling to understand what a reasonable policy would be without impacting irrigation wells and local industrial users."

Jennings said she also has heard that a proposal to drill in Dakota County may be taking shape.

The DNR is responsible under state law for keeping the pumping of groundwater from depleting surface water. Officials there wouldn't speculate on how the DNR would respond to a well application if various changes were made in last fall's proposal. At that time they said approval for a well comes down to who would get the water and what they would use it for.

Empire Building's proposal was primarily hobbled by a state statute that prohibits new permits for wells drawing water from the Mount Simon-Hinckley aquifer unless the water is for potable use and there are no logical alternatives.

Another state law cites specific criteria for diverting water outside the state, DNR officials said, but doesn't forbid it.

Grover said Metropolitan Council projections show that groundwater in areas of Dakota County could be depleted by up to 50% in the coming years through local use. The hot spots are population centers such as Apple Valley, Eagan, Inver Grove Heights and Lake­ville and the southeastern part of the county, where farmers use a lot of water for crops, she said.

Dakota County officials said they expect the moratorium to be approved.

"I absolutely support the idea," said Commissioner Tom Egan. "I really think we have to protect this precious, valuable resource."

Egan, who represents Eagan and Mendota Heights, said he worries that his constituents' water source could be jeopardized by a new proposal to ship water elsewhere.

"We will be prepared if they come back and try to do this again," he said.

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781