A rail company's proposal to ship Minnesota groundwater in bulk to the Southwest appeared to die a swift death Friday when Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Sarah Strommen said she saw "virtually no scenario" in which she would approve it.

Her response came amid widespread shock and concern over the water shipment plan proposed by Empire Building Investments Inc., the real estate arm of Lakeville-based Progressive Rail.

The plan was first detailed in a Star Tribune story published online Thursday afternoon, and within hours the piece had drawn hundreds of comments mostly denouncing the proposed sale of state water. Several local politicians and environmental groups also condemned it.

"We're long past the days of thinking of our water supplies as infinite, and we shouldn't be considering any activities that could leave public and private drinking water wells high and dry," said Trevor Russell, water program director for Friends of the Mississippi River.

"I'm stunned," said state Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul. "This is the kind of thing — the fear — that Minnesotans have heard about for decades, so it surprised me to see a real proposal."

Hansen said Empire Building's request may end up galvanizing legislative efforts to strengthen protections for Minnesota's groundwater.

Strommen directed the DNR on Friday to send a letter to Empire Building's chief executive, David Fellon, advising him that he wasn't likely to get approval.

Fellon, contacted by phone Friday evening, said he was on vacation and had no immediate comment.

'An untested area'

Empire Building filed its preliminary permit application with the DNR last month. The plan called for drilling two wells in Randolph, about 30 miles south of the Twin Cities near Lake Byllesby and Cannon Falls, to pump up to 500 million gallons of water annually out of the Mount Simon-Hinckley aquifer. That's about the amount of water used by 5,000 homes every year, according to the DNR.

The water would get loaded onto rail cars, each carrying 20,000 to 25,000 gallons, and sent to communities near the Colorado River, where it would be used for institutional and commercial purposes, according to Empire Building's application. A Dakota County official told the Star Tribune that he had heard it would be used for agriculture.

Several states within the Colorado River basin have seen persistent drought conditions, stressing local water supplies as demand rises for farming and drinking water.

State officials said Friday that existing protections of the Mount Simon-Hinckley aquifer made it highly unlikely that Empire Building's project could go forward. State law restricts use of the aquifer to potable uses, and it can only be drawn from if there are no other feasible sources, said Randall Doneen, the conservation assistance and regulations section manager of the DNR's Ecological and Water Resources Division.

The protections were put in place for future generations because the aquifer is very old and takes a long time to recharge, Doneen said. Another law cites specific criteria for diverting water out of state, but doesn't forbid it.

The amount of water the company wants to move also would trigger an environmental review, the DNR said.

Not the first such request

DNR Deputy Commissioner Barb Naramore said Empire Building's proposal would indeed be unprecedented in Minnesota, but it's not the first time someone has proposed shipping water out of the Upper Midwest.

"I see these proposals come and go," said Naramore. "They do undoubtedly capture people's attention and generate concern for what it means for our water."

One company wanted to move Great Lakes water to the East Coast via tanker, she said. After the Mississippi River floods, it's not uncommon to hear chatter about tapping those floodwaters for drier states.

Asked if it would be possible for a company to draw water from a source less protected than the Mount Simon aquifer — say, the Mississippi — and ship it out of state, Naramore said it's difficult to say because of the unique nature of such a project.

"It's a somewhat untested area," she said. "We don't have any history of shipping water for sale in bulk out of state."

Hansen, the legislator, pointed to the Great Lakes Compact as a potential model for environmental stewardship. The compact won final approval in 2008 after the premiers of two Canadian provinces, the governors of eight U.S. states including Minnesota, and President George W. Bush signed off on it.

Naramore, speaking to reporters Friday, said Empire Building's proposal could very well spark a "lively discussion" in the upcoming legislative session.

Staff writer Erin Adler contributed to this report.

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329