A Ramsey County district judge has rejected the state's contention that it must severely restrict water use at hospitals, schools and businesses around White Bear Lake to keep it from drying up.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) alarmed about a dozen east metro communities when it said this winter that court-ordered protections of White Bear Lake would force drastic reductions at homes and cut off service to almost all nonresidential users within five miles of the lake.
That is simply not true, Judge Margaret Marrinan said in a clarifying order Tuesday.
"For clarity, nothing in the court's prior orders prohibits municipalities with water appropriation permits from furnishing water to nondomestic users such as hospitals, grocery stores, public services or other commercial or industrial uses," she wrote.
The DNR's dire warnings, however, have already found an audience with state lawmakers. The threat of losing water to essential services prompted a flurry of legislative activity over the past several months. The Senate is now considering a proposal that would nullify much of the court order by exempting municipalities and businesses within a 5-mile radius of White Bear Lake from the law that prohibits public waters from being drained.
Katie Crosby Lehmann, a lawyer who represents area homeowners against the DNR, said she is pleased Marrinan corrected the "spread of disinformation."
"It's disappointing a false narrative was created in the first place," she said.
Katie Smith, DNR director of ecological and water resources, said the agency is reviewing the order and is not yet sure of its next steps.
"We'll have discussion internally on how to move forward," she said.
The confusion dates to 2013 when White Bear Lake homeowners sued the DNR after lake levels had fallen to an all-time low. Marrinan ruled for the homeowners, who were supported by experts from the U.S. Geological Survey, saying that the DNR mismanaged the lake for decades and allowed communities, golf courses and businesses to pump too much groundwater from the aquifer that feeds the lake.
Marrinan ordered the DNR to come up with strategies for cutting water use and, eventually, to find an alternative source of water. In the meantime, she ordered the department to set per capita water use at 90 gallons a day in the communities around White Bear Lake, impose lawn watering bans when the lake dropped beneath a certain level and impose a collective annual withdrawal limit for the aquifer.
In February, the DNR said that withdrawal limit would need to be 314 million gallons a year to meet the court's standard. To get there, the agency said it would have to impose far greater restrictions than the 90 gallons a day Marrinan had ordered: Residents would be limited to 55 gallons a day and water would be shut off to nearly everywhere else.
The long-running dispute could be solved if cities drew their water from the Mississippi River, as Minneapolis and St. Paul do, rather than tapping groundwater. But the Legislature hasn't been willing to pay for a new regional system, which the Metropolitan Council estimated in 2014 could cost between $150 million and $620 million.
The state House and Senate are considering proposals that would provide the DNR money to start studying alternative sources of drinking water for the area.