An administrative law judge on Thursday called state-imposed watering ban restrictions near White Bear Lake an "arbitrary and unlawful condition on appropriations of groundwater," the latest finding in a 12-year fight over water use that was triggered by falling levels at the lake.

Judge Eric L. Lipman said in his ruling that the ban on cities within a 5-mile radius of White Bear Lake does not treat all users the same and is not lawful.

However, he agreed with other Minnesota Department of Natural Resource (DNR) permit amendments affecting the communities, including one asking them to prepare contingency plans to convert their water systems from groundwater to surface water by closing their wells and building pipelines to draw water from the Mississippi River.

Lipman also found lawful a DNR permit amendment asking the cities to submit enforceable plans to phase down per capita water use to 75 gallons per day and total per capita water use to 90 gallons per day.

The cities affected by the ruling are Hugo, Lino Lakes, Lake Elmo, Mahtomedi, Oakdale, Vadnais Heights and White Bear Lake.

The judge's order was welcomed by some, and mayors of several cities, including Oakdale and Hugo, said the irrigation ban was unnecessarily burdensome.

Oakdale Mayor Kevin Zabel said its removal was good news for his city. He said Oakdale attorneys would review the rest of the ruling to determine what to do next.

"We've had conversations about moving to surface water but in Oakdale's case, the biggest barrier has been cost in putting in that infrastructure," he said.

Hugo Mayor Tom Weidt said he was "certainly happy" to see the ban rejected. "It wasn't enforceable; it was unfair; it made it hard for people to maintain their yards and gardens," he said.

Hugo already has instituted some water conservation rules, notably a requirement that new developments capture rainwater for reuse, Weidt said. "We've been very forward-thinking on water conservation and water reuse," he said.

The judge ruled that cities near White Bear Lake should plan to end residential use of groundwater in favor of surface water — most likely from the Mississippi River and the St. Paul water system — as quickly as possible. Weidt said it's unknown at this point what will happen next.

"I appreciate the judge in listening to our arguments and agreeing with some of them," he said. "We're looking at some of the other options and will determine what we want to do as a city going forward, to either go along with the ruling or contest it again."

Lipman said the watering ban didn't include commercial or government properties or communities that don't use municipal water. Nor did it include Woodbury, Shoreview, and New Brighton — cities that are thought to influence White Bear Lake water levels — because they are outside the 5-mile radius.

The judge also noted that the DNR had doubts about the effectiveness of a watering ban on raising the levels of White Bear Lake.

The ban was one of the permit restrictions placed as a result of a 2012 lawsuit filed by the White Bear Lake Restoration Association and White Bear Lake Homeowners Association. The lawsuit argued that the DNR allowed too much groundwater use near White Bear Lake, causing lake levels to fall.

The case went to trial in 2017, when a court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and imposed a number of restrictions and requirements on the DNR, including the watering ban.