A Lakeville-based railway wants to drill two wells in Dakota County that would annually produce 500 million gallons of water to be shipped by rail to the drought-stricken Southwest.

The proposal, the first of its kind for Minnesota, is drawing objections and stunned reactions from some county leaders and environmental advocates.

Water "is like our mother lode of assets," said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a coalition of environmental groups. "To basically mine that out and ship it away is really offensive."

"I think my jaw dropped," said Valerie Grover, groundwater protection supervisor for Dakota County, describing her reaction when she learned about the application.

Empire Building Investments, the real estate arm of Progressive Rail, filed a preliminary application with the Department of Natural Resources in early October.

It wants to drill two wells on a 6.2-acre parcel the company owns in Randolph, within a mile of Lake Byllesby in the Cannon River watershed. The wells together would pump up to 6,000 gallons of water per minute, which would double the amount of water that's currently extracted annually from area wells by farmers and residents.

The water would be shipped by rail to communities near the Colorado River, county officials said. The application says the water would be used for commercial and institutional purposes, though Dakota County Commissioner Mike Slavik said he had heard it was intended for agricultural use in southwestern Colorado.

Seven southwestern states in the Colorado River basin have experienced drought conditions for 20 years, resulting in rising demand for crop irrigation and drinking water. The Colorado River supports a population base of about 40 million people and millions of acres of farmland, and those states have been developing drought contingency plans to trigger cutbacks in water usage when needed.

Dakota County officials said Progressive Rail would work with Oregon-based Water Train, which provides water to government agencies in Colorado, Utah and Arizona. Water Train's website says the company is "nothing more than delivered bottled water, except our bottles (railroad tank cars) hold more than 26,000 gallons each."

Water Train and Progressive Rail representatives did not respond Thursday to requests for comment.

Challenges to the proposal

The form submitted by Empire Building is intended to help the DNR assess well construction factors before moving forward with the proposal, said Jason Moeckel, a manager with the DNR's division of ecological and water resources.

"Nobody I know of here has seen one like this," Moeckel said of the application.

The DNR is responsible under state law to prevent groundwater pumping from depleting surface water. It took severe criticism in a landmark court ruling last year for failing to do enough to restrict groundwater pumping in the White Bear Lake area, which drained that aquifer and shrank the lake.

Whether Progressive Rail's project would be allowed depends on state statutes and rules, which officials are looking at now. "It comes down to who's on the receiving end [of the water] and what's their use," Moeckel said.

He added that the proposal has "significant challenges," including a Minnesota statute that prohibits issuing new permits for wells drawing water from the Mount Simon-Hinckley aquifer in the metro area unless the water is used for potable use and there are no "feasible or practical alternatives."

The Mount Simon aquifer, which extends nearly to Duluth and encompasses all of southeastern Minnesota, is likely the one the company would access. At 1,000 feet below ground surface, it's the deepest aquifer in Dakota County and contains uncontaminated water that's at least 10,000 years old, Moeckel said.

Another Minnesota law cites specific criteria for diverting water outside Minnesota, he said. But state law doesn't forbid it.

If Progressive Rail submits a formal application to extract water, the large volume it proposes to extract would trigger an environmental assessment work sheet by the state. The request would go through "extensive testing to evaluate long-term sustainability" and weigh the potential for interference with other wells, whether private, municipal or irrigation, Moeckel said.

Grover said that Dakota County officials can comment on the proposal. They will consider current and future water availability, water quality in the area and how close the new wells would be to the railroad or industry, she said.

Within a 2-mile radius of the proposed wells are 140 private wells, Grover said, along with 27 irrigation wells that extracted about 365 million gallons of water in 2018.

Carrie Jennings, research and policy director at the St. Paul-based Freshwater Society, said she's been working with Dakota County to update its groundwater plan.

"Something like this would totally throw their planning process in disarray," she said. "There already were concerns with irrigation and interference and just the volume of water that was being used there."

Metropolitan Council projections for 2040 show "significant depletion under some of the major cities" including Lakeville and possibly Farmington, she said. This proposal would be like adding "another city or major industrial [water] user" to the county.

Drilling new wells also could push nitrate pollution already in some wells even deeper into the ground, she said.

Dakota County leaders and water advocates say the proposal raises serious concerns.

"We're drawing down our aquifer as it is and then we have this application, which is unprecedented in Minnesota history," Commissioner Joe Atkins said.

Slavik said that the county works hard to take care of its water, so it doesn't make sense to "give it away like this."

"There's going to be a point where our water's more valuable than oil," he said.

Water shouldn't be treated like a commodity when it's a key part of our natural resource system, said Morse, a former DNR deputy commissioner.

"Maybe this is a time where our Legislature should step in and upgrade the protections for this basin … and just not allow this type of wholesale export of our water resources," he said.

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781