There's a fervor to Jamie Schurbon's voice as he warns of a coming crisis few can see.

If Metropolitan Council population projections come true, increased water use in urban parts of the metro area will lead to significantly lowered aquifer levels, to the detriment of lakes, ponds and even some shallower private wells.

Schurbon, a water resource specialist with the Anoka Conservation District, hopes information being gathered now will give water a more prominent place at the table as development resumes in the county after being interrupted by the recession. The Met Council recently completed a Master Water Supply Plan and an Anoka County Geologic Atlas is in the works.

Tapping this information could prevent the problems seen in other parts of the country, including Atlanta, where stress on aquifers has led to annual water crises.

Consider this: The Met Council projects that the population of Blaine, Anoka County's fastest-growing city, will increase from 60,324 this year to 96,112 in 2050. During the same period, the water demand will increase from 2.9 billion gallons a year to 4.6 billion. In the city of Ramsey, the population is projected to grow from 11,683 to 59,240, and water demand from 792 million to 3.5 billion gallons a year.

"Water is being sucked out from beneath people's feet, [by] the wells in the more densely populated areas," Schurbon said. "Will water supply become the limiting factor for development? It's unheard of. But 100 years from now?"

Come on, you might say. This is Minnesota, land of more than 10,000 lakes. But it could happen, Schurbon said.

Special challenges

First of all, lakes are distributed all over the state; development is not. And the Anoka sand plain presents special challenges.

Much of the region is fed by aquifers that generally flow north to south beneath the sand plain. But mixed into the sand, another layer of groundwater sits just below and, sometimes, above the surface.

"Most of the lakes and wetlands in Anoka County are an expression of the water table," Schurbon said. "They are part of the water table that you can see."

In the coming years, pumping in the southern, more densely populated end will put a strain on the region, which will become apparent as more surface water features shrink or even disappear. That's already happening. On Bunker Lake and Coon Lake, for instance, lakefront property owners last year had docks 75 feet from the water's edge.

And the impervious surfaces that come with development -- blacktop, roofs -- mean storm water goes not to the aquifer, but through the sewers and into the Mississippi River.

That's also how drought and river flooding can co-exist, Schurbon said.

Ramsey, in the northwest corner of the county, has already started thinking about how to supplement the wells that tap into one of the aquifers, after a warning from the state early in the decade that aquifers couldn't support the eight wells needed for the city's growth plans, said Ramsey Public Works Director Brian Olson.

"Two to four billion gallons of water go past our city every day in the Mississippi River, so it's hard to imagine there's a shortage of water," he said. Still, the city began to explore the complex -- and expensive -- process of tapping the river.

The state did permit three requested wells, with heavy monitoring requirements. Meanwhile, the city's development plans for its Town Center project have not come to pass.

Still, Ramsey has done much of the research needed to change its approach if it needs to do so. In the meantime, it has instituted several measures to encourage and enforce conservation, including summertime watering restrictions, tiered billing and a requirement that developers put a layer of topsoil under the sod they lay.

In Blaine, Public Services Manager Robert Therres says that while water always is a consideration, it would be good to have additional information to guide future development decisions.

"What we want is for it to be good development that is beneficial to the community," he said. "It's hopefully beneficial to the developers, and yet it keeps in mind and follows all the guidelines and has the least impact on the environment."

Cities already work with the state and with their local watershed districts, Therres noted. There may be more collaboration in their futures.

"It's a regional issue," Schurbon said. "No one city can address this on their own, and no one city is responsible. ... If the Met Council is half-right, water should be a very serious consideration."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409