Imagine 60,000 private wells and hundreds of city wells all sipping from the same water source, like straws draining a bottle.

That's the grim picture in the seven-county metro area, where a relentless demand for groundwater could leave millions of people sitting high and dry unless evasive action is taken, said Sandy Rummel, who chairs the Metropolitan Council's environment committee.

"Communities are beginning to grapple with their responsibility to deal with water and they're learning they can't do it alone," Rummel said during a recent forum in Stillwater. "There is a lot of water that we don't know where it's going."

The forum, which included state Rep. Peter Fischer, DFL-Maplewood, also touched on the importance of adapting surface water for large-scale uses such as irrigation. Such projects already are being done in Woodbury and Hugo.

The massive Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer, which supplies much of the metro area's water, is being consumed at an alarming rate — and faster than it's being replenished, Rummel said. The aquifer has fallen 20 feet in 35 years, in large part because of a soaring number of wells in suburban counties.

Some of the worst drawdown, in the east metro, could deplete half the aquifer by 2040 under a "business as usual" scenario, Rummel said.

Signs of disappearing stores of groundwater have appeared everywhere, from declining lake levels in White Bear Lake and Shoreview to wells running dry in Chanhassen, to damaged trout streams in the southeast metro.

Growing groundwater use

Until 1980, cities in the seven-county metro area tapped surface water more than groundwater, by nearly 20 percent. That trend sharply reversed in the decade leading to 1990, and now groundwater accounts for 75 percent of all water used. Of the 4.7 trillion gallons of water flowing into the metro area from the Mississippi, Minnesota and St. Croix rivers, only 2 percent is diverted for municipal use in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Rummel said.

Drawing water from the St. Croix is considered impractical because of the high cost of pumping it uphill and because the river is federally protected under the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Rummel and Fischer said.

"The question is, can we rebalance our water resources that have relied so heavily on groundwater?" Rummel asked the audience of about 75 people. Minnesota is the only state where the rate of water use has increased faster than the rate of population, she said.

Fischer, vice chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee, said that pesticides and leaking garbage landfills contaminated Minnesota's abundant waterways over the years and that high nitrate levels from fertilizers are being found in wells.

Seeking new methods

"We've done a lot of things where we haven't been very responsible with our water resources," he said. Despite the notable problems, he said, the trend of depletion and contamination can be reversed if cities and counties "learn to think about water in a whole new way."

Under strong study in the metro area are conservation and water reuse, Fischer said, elevating the importance of surface water. Public officials should think of aquifers as underground reservoirs and conserve them as much as possible, he said.

Meanwhile, several regional studies are underway to figure out new methods of using water. Hugo, Burnsville, West St. Paul and Hastings are among those cities looking at water sustainability. Two studies, which will determine how cities might share water resources and treatment plants, will be completed this fall. Another one, to examine how groundwater and surface water interact, will be finished in late 2016.

Projects already underway include a planned experiment at the new Saints ballpark in St. Paul that will use stormwater for irrigation. In Woodbury, a joint city-Washington County effort will provide stormwater for irrigation at a golf course instead of draining it into Colby Lake, where phosphorous contamination already is high. In Hugo, millions of gallons of groundwater will be saved each year in a similar effort to reuse stormwater for irrigation.

Reusing water on land also has a positive benefit of reducing contaminated water flowing into streams and lakes, Rummel said. One of the largest sources of water pollution comes from agriculture, she said, and more farmers are wanting to join in water conservation efforts.

"They're beginning to see that if they don't take care of the water, they won't be able to stay in business here," she said.

Craig Leiser, a district manager in the Browns Creek Watershed District, said that Washington County has a good groundwater plan and that people are working together to find solutions.

"All is not lost, but you have to keep listening and keep your eyes open," he told the audience at the forum, sponsored by the Isaak Walton League, River Valley Action and the White Bear Lake Area League of Women Voters.