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Inside the Outdoors: Whose water is it?

The Straight River was a widely-known and much-loved fishing destination, and as a spring-fed river there was concern that intensified irrigation might reduce its flow, warm its waters and endanger its fish. Some believed there should be a moratorium - a "hold" - on new irrigation wells until their impact on the subsurface water flowing into the Straight River could be more fully understood. PineandLakes.com Illustration

In late March, a Ramsey County, Minnesota judge made headlines with a ruling that should prompt us to ask a deceptively simple question: "Who owns our water?" The pronoun "our," in this case, means the planet's water; on the surface in a lake or pond, a creek or a river, or underground in the aquifers we tap for irrigation and for use in our homes.

The judge's ruling concerned a lake north of the Twin Cities that has been slowly disappearing. White Bear Lake is a community north of St. Paul. It's also an actual lake, one that has seen its water level drop dramatically in recent years, in some cases leaving docks and boat lifts perched comically high and dry. Perhaps less comical if it happened to be your dock or boat lift, and your property — which almost certainly lost value as a result.

The water level's decline has been linked to demand for water in surrounding communities, pumping water from the same aquifers — underground streams — that feed the lake. Some of the water is used in homes in surrounding communities. Some is used commercially. About 30% of water use in this northeast sector of the Twin Cities is said to be used to keep lawns green and healthy during the growing season.

Right or wrong, the judge blasted the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for not adequately regulating the pumping and use of water from underground sources, including being too generous in issuing permits for commercial water extraction, and not declaring and enforcing lawn watering bans that might have limited the negative impacts on this lake.

The judge also had harsh words for private citizens. Though you'd be hard-pressed to find a homeowner who hasn't at one time or another watered their lawn, the judge risked alienating these folks by describing this as mindless waste. She ordered the state to issue lawn watering bans — and broader water use restrictions — if the lake falls below its current, somewhat recovered, level. But if you're an angler who fishes there, or you use the lake for other recreations, you'd probably side with the judge's opinion on where that water should be.

This case is not a unique example of competing demands for limited water resources. Near the distant end of Minnesota's North Shore of Lake Superior is Lutsen Resort, one of that remote area's major employers, a magnet for Minnesota and Thunder Bay Ontario skiers in winter, and a popular resort in summer, too. It's a charming place with a long history, a fine reputation and the closest thing in Minnesota to "mountain skiing."

Meandering through the Lutsen Resort property is the Poplar River. It's one of many North Shore streams that over millennia have worn steep, tortuous, boulder-studded courses from upland forests and swamps where they originate, down to The Big Lake. The Poplar River is a trout stream, and like most others of its kind on the craggy North Shore, its flow can vary greatly from season to season.

Good flow, meaning an adequate volume of water, is critical to all stream and river fish. Oxygenated water for breathing, shelter from predators and food supply are all tied to adequate flow. The Poplar River's flow is shared not only among its brook trout — and those who fish for them — but also with Lutsen Resort, which in winter draws water from the river for making snow. Winter just happens to often be a time of low flow in these rivers.

The resort has in the past maintained that it would be less feasible economically to meet its snow-making needs by piping water from Lake Superior; it's cheaper to draw it from the Poplar River. This became an issue several years ago when the resort proposed increasing its water draw from the river. Some complained that past DNR enforcement of water permit limits had been lax. Then, as now, there is substantial local pressure to support the resort, which employs many from the upper North Shore. Is there enough water in the Poplar River to properly support its trout and Lutsen's skiing legions? If not, whose interests should come first?

A similar question of water use priorities arose in the 1990's, when irrigated potato production began in earnest in the watershed of the Straight River, near Park Rapids. The Straight River was a widely-known and much-loved fishing destination, and as a spring-fed river there was concern that intensified irrigation might reduce its flow, warm its waters and endanger its fish.

Some believed there should be a moratorium — a "hold" — on new irrigation wells until their impact on the subsurface water flowing into the Straight River could be more fully understood. But the presence of a potato products processor nearby as a willing buyer added to the appeal of intensive potato farming, and irrigation more or less guaranteed a successful crop; thus, no moratorium on new wells.

My wife and I are about to move into a home we're building, and part of that process included the drilling of a well to supply our water needs. There's laundry, dishes, washing the car at home if I'm sufficiently ambitious, a drink for the flowers in window boxes and maybe watering a vegetable garden. Being a Minnesotan, where water is abundant — and probably too much taken for granted — the only question I recall asking about the process was "How deep did you have to go?" I took it for granted that we'd have the water we'll need; didn't consider that there could be a limit to how much I'm entitled to.

There are many places in the world, some right here in our own country, where there are life and death implications to the question "Whose water is it?" Yet even here, in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, we're finally coming to understand that it's not a limitless resource.

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