The water line of White Bear Lake is once again starting to creep away from beaches, docks and parks after falling more than a foot in the last year.
Much of that loss came during the last two months as the drought hardened across Minnesota — and if the lake keeps dropping at the current rate, it could trigger the first test of new restrictions and lawn-watering bans residents won in a yearslong legal battle against the Department of Natural Resources.
But even as residents watch the water recede, it's unclear when or how those new rules would kick in. Eighteen municipalities, golf courses and businesses that would need to abide by them are appealing the changes to an administrative law judge, a process that could take months.
"What we need to do now is just see this to the finish," said Greg McNeely, chairman of the White Bear Lake Restoration Association, one of the groups that sued the DNR in 2013 for failing to protect the lake. "We need to make sure that the judge's order is not watered down and that the DNR will enforce it."
So far, the large, popular 80-foot-deep lake is still at a healthy level. Record rainfall over the past several years has propped it up. Every inch of depth counts with White Bear Lake because it remains very shallow near the shore before dropping steeply near the center. The loss of a few feet in depth can cause the lake to recede more than 100 feet from beaches and docks.
It has fallen from 925 feet above sea level to just under 924 feet since July 2020. That's still about 5 feet higher than it was in 2012 and 2013, when beaches were closed and docks needed to be stretched hundreds of feet to reach open water.
Residents sued the DNR then, saying it had allowed too many municipalities to pump too much water, endangering not only the lake, but the future drinking water supply for thousands in the east metro.
District Judge Margaret Marrinan agreed with the homeowners in 2017, saying the DNR had mismanaged the lake for more than a decade.
The judge ordered the DNR to make several changes to all permits that drew water within 5 miles of the lake. She set a trigger elevation of 923.5 feet above sea level. Whenever the lake drops below that point, homeowners are banned from watering their lawns.
She ordered a dozen municipalities, including the city of White Bear Lake, White Bear Township, Mahtomedi and Vadnais Heights, to write contingency plans that would show what it would take to shift their source of drinking water from groundwater to the Mississippi River or other surface water. The order also required the municipalities to limit their average water use to 90 gallons per capita per day.
The DNR appealed the decision, eventually taking it to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of homeowners in December, all but ending the nine-year legal battle.
While the court upheld nearly every restriction Marrinan wrote, it allowed the permit holders to seek contested hearings on any changes to their permits before they would go into effect. Eleven municipalities and seven businesses have asked for contested hearings, according to the DNR.
Most of those are contesting the lawn-watering trigger and the 90-gallon cap, said Jess Richards, assistant commissioner for the DNR.
They'd also like to know exactly how detailed the court expects their contingency plans to be to switch from groundwater to surface water, he said.
"We have the court order and we want to follow it and intend to do what's required," Richards said. "It's a big question when it comes to, not simply just shifting from groundwater to surface water, but to find the best way to set up those contingencies."
The city of White Bear Lake has already hit the per capita water limits set by the court order, said Paul Kauppi, public works director.
It's unclear what kind of contingency plan the city would need to write to satisfy the court, he said.
"We have zero guidance and don't even know what requirements we would have to meet," Kauppi said.
There are also questions about whether the per capita water limits or lawn-watering bans should be the same for every municipality regardless of how pumping within the different areas may draw the lake down, said Chad Lemmons, lawyer for White Bear Township.
"Is that the right standard to meet?" Lemmons said.
As the drought has stretched on, most, if not all, municipalities in the area have enacted some form lawn-watering restrictions, limiting either the day of the week residents can water or the time of day.
The lake's long-term median level is 923.3 feet, putting the current lake level a little above average. It becomes difficult to launch boats or to keep marinas and beaches open when the lake falls below around 923 feet.
Forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show little hope for the drought easing any time soon. More than 20% of the state has now dipped into extreme drought, with the rest of the state falling into severe drought.
Jim Markoe, one of the homeowners who led efforts to sue the DNR, said he's happy with the progress the DNR is making to rewrite the permits.
Every permit holder has the right to a contested hearing, Markoe said.
"The wheels of the legal system turn as they turn and it's not something that can be sped up," he said. "We're thrilled with the outcome of all of this. The lake is in good shape right now, and if it does go below the trigger elevation then we can manage our water supply in a way that is much more sensitive and sustainable."
Greg Stanley • 612-673-4882