The slips at Brian McGoldrick's marina on the west shore of White Bear Lake are nearly full again. Close to sunset, on breezy nights with live music, customers at waterfront bars and restaurants fight over limited parking spots. Families crowd the public beach, open for its second straight summer after being closed for nearly a decade due to low water.

Water levels at White Bear Lake are hovering near their historically normal level, a healthy level, and at a 13-year high. They've been slowly crawling up since the lake became a near mudpit in 2013 after a record stretch of low-water years. Marinas, restaurants and storefronts along the shore are seeing increased activity.

The question is how long normal water levels will last, said McGoldrick, who owns Admiral D's, a marina and waterfront restaurant.

Sticking out of the water, near the bay by McGoldrick's dock and just off the shore of Manitou Island, are young trees that took root when the water disappeared. They jut out of the lake like flags warning boaters that they'll be back.

"So the lake is almost back to average and that's great and we're doing back flips, but is the problem fixed?" McGoldrick asked. "Hell, no."

Ongoing litigation

The future of the lake has been in limbo since 2013, when homeowners sued the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for failing to take care of it.

A district judge ruled in favor of the homeowners in 2017, ordering the DNR to review all the well permits it had issued within 5 miles of the lake and to require nearby cities and water districts to shift from groundwater as the source of their water supply to the Mississippi River or other surface water.

State lawmakers stepped in to delay the ruling from taking effect until July 2019. In the meantime, McGoldrick said there's little to do except brace for when the water creeps down again — knowing that much of his business might go with it.

"In 2013, we were down to 42 slips out of 200," he said. "I had to give refunds because we lost the water for slips that we had rented. I still can't really use a lot of the first hundred feet from shore because of the trees and cattails that have grown up."

Sapping the aquifer

By 2013, the 2,400-acre, 80-foot-deep lake had lost 25 percent of its water. The water level had dropped 4 feet below the low part of its normal range.

Because the lake is shallow for hundreds of feet along its shoreline before dropping sharply near its center, the water receded more than 100 feet from shore, leaving behind a layer of muck that sprouted grass and trees.

The lake was drier than it had ever been, losing more water than it did during the Dust Bowl or the drought of 1988. Homeowners sued the DNR for issuing too many well permits, wells that they believed were sapping the aquifer beneath the lake.

After a three-week trial, Ramsey County Judge Margaret Marrinan ruled that the DNR had mismanaged the lake for more than a decade, finding that the agency routinely handed out well permits to cities even as it knew those wells were draining the lake.

The DNR has appealed the decision, saying Marrinan made "numerous factual errors" in her ruling.

Marrinan's decision pointedly noted that the only times in recorded history that the lake dropped below 922 feet above sea level were during the Dust Bowl, the 1988 drought — and the nine-year period from 2007 to 2016, which had normal or above normal rainfall.

In 2013, the lake was down to 918.8 feet above sea level; a month ago, it was back up to 924 feet, DNR records show.

No economic study has been done on the cost to business when water rushes away from shore, said Tom Snell, executive director of the White Bear Area Chamber of Commerce.

Most of the lakeshore is privately owned. But there have been some signs of growth and increased foot traffic along the marina since the water has returned, he said. The owners of Acqua, a restaurant on the lake, recently opened a sushi eatery inside an old boatworks.

Smiles are up

The most tangible economic benefit from the lake's comeback may be that Ramsey County reopened the public beach, Snell said.

"That brings in families, thousands a year, who go use the lake and swim and ultimately use the businesses around the area," he said.

Just down the street from Admiral D's is Tally's Dockside, a White Bear Lake staple for decades. The restaurant has been mostly immune to the water's rise and fall, said Keith Dehnert, who has owned Tally's with his wife since the 1990s. But with water levels back, it's getting busier on the weekdays and he is seeing more locals.

"The thing we notice is, the actual residents of the lake are much more active," he said. "It's like the perception changes and people are much more optimistic. They're smiling more. We get the local boaters on weekdays, who come up for a bite to eat by a boat instead of by a car."

No matter the effect on business, the lake is a regional resource for boaters, families and fishermen, said Greg McNeely, chairman of the homeowners group that sued the DNR.

McNeely said he is worried that the current water levels are a mask, brought about by years of record rainfall, that will cause people to think the problem has gone away.

"What we're seeing right now is what the science showed — that our new highs are much lower and that our lows are going to be lower," McNeely said. "Just because it has rained like crazy doesn't mean we can relax on it."

Greg Stanley • 612-673-4882