The amount of groundwater near White Bear Lake that the Department of Natural Resources has allowed cities and well owners to pump is sustainable and will be for years to come, according to a court-ordered study released Tuesday by the DNR.

The $250,000 study found that a district court judge’s controversial irrigation ban, which would automatically trigger when the lake drops below a certain level, will have little noticeable effect on water levels because the lake naturally rises and falls.

The study shows that groundwater pumping has lowered White Bear Lake’s levels by up to 4 feet during some of the lake’s driest periods of the last 20 years. That drop has affected recreational use of the lake, forcing the closing of beaches and extension of boat docks.

Barb Naramore, assistant DNR commissioner, said the impact on recreation “is of concern to the department and is something we do seek to support. We will continue working with permit holders to evaluate ways we may be able to address it.”

But it isn’t a threat to the lake’s ecological health or its future as a water supply, she said.

The DNR said the study shows that the well permits it issued have met the state’s four standards of sustainability: that the maximum permitted groundwater use in White Bear Lake not jeopardize future groundwater supply, harm the ecosystem, degrade the quality of water or lower groundwater levels beyond the reach of public water supplies or private wells.

Greg McNeely, chairman of the restoration association whose suit against the DNR resulted in the judge’s order, said the study’s sustainability conclusions are a continuation of the DNR’s same arguments that were rejected in court.

“The studies and evidence brought forward by experts, including the [U.S. Geological Survey], were overwhelming,” McNeely said. “The lake is not sustainable.”

Appeal decision expected

Water levels in White Bear Lake have been crawling back toward normal over the past five years, thanks in part to record rainfall. The lake this year has hovered around 924 feet above sea level, about 5 feet higher than the low point of just under 919 feet in 2013.

The lake is shallow enough around the shoreline that a drop of a few feet in the water level causes the waterline to recede at some points more than 100 feet from shore, leaving behind a layer of muck and making much of the lake unusable for swimmers, anglers and boaters.

After a sustained down period turned the lake into a virtual mudpit in 2013, homeowners sued the DNR claiming that it had failed to take care of the lake. District Judge Margaret Marrinan ruled in favor of the homeowners in 2017, saying the DNR had mismanaged the lake for more than a decade.

The judge ordered the DNR to study all the well permits it had issued within 5 miles of the lake and to require nearby cities and water districts, which serve about 500,000 customers, to shift from groundwater as the source of their water supply to the Mississippi River or other surface water.

Marrinan’s order also required permitted water users within 5 miles of White Bear Lake’s shoreline to impose residential irrigation bans if the lake’s level fell below 923.5 feet above sea level. The lake’s long-term median level is 923.3 feet, according to the study.

The judge’s order covered a number of private wells used for golf course and agricultural irrigation and food processing, among other things.

State lawmakers stepped in to postpone the ruling’s effective date until July 2019. The DNR has appealed the ruling and expects a decision by spring, but in the meantime it chose to complete the well study.

The DNR believes a residential irrigation ban would affect lake levels by only a few inches over a period of 10 years. That’s largely because the neighborhoods and cities closest to White Bear Lake, which have the greatest effect on water levels, don’t irrigate as much as those farther away, Naramore said.

Without an irrigation ban, Naramore said, the DNR will work with cities to explore other options for conservation or to supplement their water supply with other sources when the lake drops again.

Nearly a quarter of the water used by Twin Cities residents is spent outdoors, largely for irrigation, according to the Metropolitan Council.

“The data is completely consistent with our analysis and legal interpretations throughout the trial,” Naramore said. “This [study] will be an incredibly valuable tool for us. It’s something we said during the trial that we needed.”

Jim Markoe, president of the White Bear Lake Homeowners Association, was skeptical. Trees have taken root in the lake where once there was navigable water, he said.

“It seems to me that the DNR is fully acknowledging that the lake went down as much as it did because of how much water is being pumped,” Markoe said. “Between 2003 and 2013 we only had one statistically dry year. So when rainfall is average, the water level is down 4 feet.”