High-capacity wells dug by suburbs near White Bear Lake as sprawl engulfed the area could have been responsible for as much as 5 feet of the plunge in lake levels by 2013, according to new findings by the state Department of Natural Resources.

But there also was some reassuring news for local residents, such as the finding that lawn watering may only deplete the lake by about an inch per year.

Two months after the court case in which the DNR was condemned for inaction as the situation got worse, state officials last week shared with local officials research that they intend to use from now on to pinpoint offenders and take action where needed.

A handful of cities around White Bear Lake account for a huge share of the impact on the lake's water volume, the locals were told. That led to questions as to who might be "targeted" from now on.

Jim Markoe, a lake restoration activist who has battled the DNR for years, captured on his phone a visual showing how much less depleted the lake would have been without well pumping. "The model shows dramatic impacts," he said. "That's my one epiphany from this nonscience guy."

Much remains to be sorted out, DNR division chief Luke Skinner said, but the state for the first time has a tool to gauge the impact of well pumping on lakes, something the agency would have loved to acquire long ago.

The DNR seemed to concede that litigation launched by White Bear Lake property owners and their allies in 2013 loosened up funding needed to learn what really goes on with water and its long-term sustainability.

The court case is still pending, with appeals expected. DNR officials said they may meet more often with locals to update them on findings. They acknowledged that the underlying problem is that of "groundwater resources in the area … oversubscribed in the future," which would force them to take stern measures.

'No emergency'

At Friday's packed session in Maplewood, the DNR and its outside consultant, Illinois-based Matt Tonkin, stressed that the new research is part of a lengthy process. More simulations need to be run to calculate whether water piped to White Bear Lake would help maintain lake levels or simply end up leaking into groundwater tables.

The big well permit holders within a 5-mile radius (the area defined by the judge) that can hugely affect lake levels include the city of White Bear Lake, White Bear Township, Hugo and Vadnais Heights. More computer runs could draw more cities into the mix, the DNR's Jason Moeckel said.

They stressed that after years of pounding rain, with lake levels high, there's "no emergency," in Moeckel's words. The model found no evidence that "current groundwater use is creating an unsustainable drawdown on aquifer levels," a DNR summary stated.

That was a huge point in the court case, although both sides agree that growth is projected for the area — notably in Hugo, which is close to the lake.

Conversely, lake activist Markoe noted that the impact of an approved well can take years or decades to kick in.

In the best of times, the DNR said it found the total impact on lake levels of all nearby well pumping can be as little as half a foot.

But in periods of drought, when sprinklers are used overtime to counter it, city wells can pull the lake way down, frustrating boaters and swimmers if not permanently affecting the ecosystem.