A struggle has broken out over control of water in the Twin Cities metro area, pitting local officials against the Metropolitan Council and stirring debate about who is the best steward of the precious natural resource.

Over the winter, a group of city engineers and public works professionals launched a revolt against what they saw as an attempt by the Met Council to exert more control over the area’s water supply.

The rebels got what they asked for, with the Met Council creating a new advisory committee on water issues and giving local officials more input into planning. But the episode could be merely the first skirmish in an ongoing battle.

“There are several in our group that are cautiously optimistic that this may be a new chapter in the relationship,” said Bob Cockriel, utilities superintendent in Bloomington and a leader of the dissenters. “I would like to think that they’re right and I’m wrong.”

Unhappiness with the Met Council’s water policymaking is centered in the Twin Cities suburbs, which have invested heavily for decades in creating municipal water systems that draw from deep wells hundreds of feet underground.

There are 105 municipal water suppliers in the seven-county region, and about 74 percent of the water used by 3 million metro residents comes from aquifers. That’s a reversal from 60 years ago, when most area residents lived in Minneapolis and St. Paul, which draw water from the Mississippi.

In recent years, Met Council staff members have been aggressively warning about possible long-term depletion of regional aquifers, including the Prairie du Chien, which serves about two-thirds of the metro area. The council circulated a presentation called “The High Price of Cheap Groundwater: Are We Flushing Our Future Downstream?”

Dakota County is one of the areas identified by Met Council planners as most in danger of future water shortages. More than 100 deep wells supply water to the county’s residents. But its top elected official characterized the Met Council’s recent water planning efforts as “overreach.”

“I think we are sophisticated enough to handle this issue on our own,” said Thomas Egan, Dakota County Board chairman and a former Met Council member. “We have the expertise to perform these things without the Met Council coming in and meddling.”

Council: Groundwater at risk

Met Council officials say their actions have been misinterpreted, and that they’ve simply been seeking to call attention to the need for coordinated, long-term planning. The council, they say, wants to work with local agencies to insure the future water supply. The Met Council does not have an official regulatory role in water supply and is not proposing to be a supplier of drinking water, a council spokeswoman said. 

“We’ve been hearing about that [a Met Council takeover] for years,” said Sandy Rummel, a council member and chairwoman of its Environment Committee. “I think some people are stuck in their earlier perspectives.

“The economic viability of this region depends on our ability to protect our water, and water doesn’t pay attention to local boundaries,” Rummel said. “The local people ... provide water for their communities, and they do a great job. Our job is to look at this 40 years out and assure sustainability of the region. So sometimes there’s a tension.”

That tension increased last year when the Met Council circulated a draft of a regional water supply plan that seemed designed to force suburban cities to abandon groundwater wells and buy river water from Minneapolis or St. Paul.

“The assumptions made by the planners were that by 2040 it was going to be the Sahara Desert and we were going to be sucking on pebbles,” said Cockriel. “And the way we’ll deal with it is to put 17 communities on surface water.”

“Let’s be honest,” said Klay Eckles, public works director in Woodbury. “We’re the folks who have been running these local water systems for years and years. I think a lot of folks felt like we didn’t need a relatively new bunch coming in and giving us a lot of feedback on how we needed to change, and go to surface water.”

The City Engineers Association of Minnesota and the state chapter of the American Public Works Association both sent letters to the Met Council, protesting that it was “actively promoting major changes in how the metropolitan area is served with drinking water.” The groups complained that they’d been shut out of the council’s planning, their expertise ignored.

Ali Elhassan, the Met Council’s manager of water supply planning, said nobody is telling cities to give up their wells.

“We’re not telling anyone to specifically go to surface water,” he said. “But we are at the point — if we continue into the future with the same trends and the same reliance on one source, we’re going to have bigger problems than what we have today. Our groundwater is at risk from overuse and contamination. We are not in the emergency room, but we are in the urgency room.”

‘We are the experts’

Friction between the Met Council and locals is built into the system, said Deborah Swackhamer, a University of Minnesota professor who teaches water policy.

But the Met Council is leaning hard on local water utilities now because it foresees a crisis in the future, she said.

“Our groundwater is being used unsustainably, and that’s a fact,” she said. “The locals do know their systems, but they’re using a common source. They’re all putting straws into common aquifers that belong to all of us. There’s no way that 100 small utilities can possibly maintain that perspective for protecting and managing that water in a societally acceptable way without some oversight.

“The Met Council is saying that if we all care about this common good, maybe it makes sense not to use so much groundwater,” Swackhamer said. “The single word here is efficiency. If you want to have an efficient water supply, you need somebody looking at the big picture.”

That’s just a different name for a takeover, said Randy Maluchnik, chairman of the Carver County Board.

“The Met Council’s power grab in many of these areas has been dictatorial and authoritarian in nature,” he said. “We are the experts, period.”

But he said he sees some potential for common ground with new Met Council Chairman Adam Duininck. “With the change in leadership there, possibly Chair Duininck is listening a little bit more,” he said.

Cockriel said the Met Council should facilitate discussion and cooperation among local water providers, but that’s where its role should end.

“I am not blind that we cannot continue unimpeded use of water in whatever amounts we want from wherever we can get it,” he said. “But we have a better handle on how to get there than the five people in the Met Council water services group.”