Four weeks of testimony over what turned the east metro's so-called "crown jewel," White Bear Lake, into a weedy mudhole, ended Wednesday in a fierce daylong series of courtroom volleys.

Forces seeking dramatic changes in water use around the lake charged that the state of Minnesota "has approved the draining of White Bear Lake," in the words of attorney Heather McElroy, who added:

"It's not normal to have to mow a lake bed. It's not normal to have trees growing in it, 25 to 30 feet high."

But attorney Oliver Larson, representing the state Department of Natural Resources, countered that lakeshore owners and east metro advocacy groups are using "bad science" to make a normal fluctuation in the lake's elevation — which he said was traceable in countless yellowing news clippings dating back well over a century — look like a scandal.

"They seem to think it's an emergency and we should be panicking," he said. "The lake is within inches today of its long-term average."

The case is being argued before Ramsey County District Judge Margaret Marrinan, who is in her last major case before retiring this summer. She may not rule for months, until after each side has had time to prepare more formal, written arguments.

The state stands accused by lakeshore owners and their allies of failing in its duty to protect a cherished natural resource. They are charging that state officials year after year sought more meetings, more data and more time, rather than risk public anger by moving to reduce nonessential water use such as heavy lawn watering. "The ability to keep having manicured green lawns even in the driest years is damaging our natural resources," McElroy said.

Her clients are seeking a large reduction in permitted groundwater pumping, arguing the lake is still lower than average despite years of driving rain, and because it's necessary to prepare for dry stretches bound to come.

But Larson said it's a good thing the case has been delayed for years, because nature's inevitable cycles have kicked in and reversed the lake's more dire appearance that prevailed four years ago.

Today, he said, "pumping is down, conservation is increasing, aquifers are up, and the wells all show that the lake is within its natural range over time."

While the lake's level may well affect some lake users, Larson said — one example is the taking over of some lakeshore areas by aquatic plants — those are the natural impacts of lake ecology. Cutting back on cities' use of water will simply hurt other recreational uses elsewhere, he said.

"You're balancing competing recreational interests," Larson said. Because grass is left to die, or there isn't water for an ice rink, "they're saying one person can't play softball so someone else can use a boat on White Bear Lake."

The case featured weeks of tedious scientific testimony, to the point that when one among the many lawyers joked that he'd "sat here for, what, 10 weeks," the judge herself sighed: "It seemed like it."

David Peterson • 651-925-5039