A news story airing recently on a Twin City TV station told of a plan to sell Minnesota ground water to government agencies in the parched Southwestern U.S. Sell it to states like Arizona and Utah, which are less well supplied with water by Nature, and experiencing shortages as communities there expand and water demands grow.
For the second time in three months, a railroad company with property in Lakeville—in Dakota County, just south of the Twin Cities—has asked the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for a permit to pump and ship by rail to the Southwest an estimated half billion gallons of water per year. That’s 500 million gallons, per year.
The first permit request was denied by the DNR in November of 2019, but a second request has now been made. An odds-maker might wager that this permit will be denied, too. The DNR’s denial of the first was reportedly accompanied by an agency statement that it would be all but impossible to receive an approval for such a request under Minnesota law.
That sounds fairly airtight. But you never know when political pressure will be applied in just the right places, like former Governor Mark Dayton’s promise to deliver a quota of timber from state lands for sale to loggers, which has resulted in a DNR “headquarters” plan to sell timber on state Wildlife Management Areas, over the objections of quite a few DNR Section of Wildlife professionals. Decisions are sometimes taken out of the hands of the right decision makers.
Throughout Minnesota’s history, water supply has been something we have had little reason to worry about. Our license plates don’t bear the legend “Land of 10,000 Lakes” for no reason, a boast that actually under-states the true number. That is surface water. But the water that lies far, far, underground in deep aquifers—the water we pump from wells—required thousands of years to get down there. There may be a lot of it there, but the supply is not inexhaustible. It is not something that can be easily restored, not in many lifetimes, at least.
This is not the first time that a company has proposed the sale and removal of water from our region on a grand scale. Way back in the mid-1980’s a coal mining company proposed building a pipeline and shipping Great Lakes water to Montana to be used in its coal mining processes. In 1998 a Canadian business consultant proposed shipping Great Lakes water in ocean-going tankers to China. After all, he said, the Great Lakes held a vast amount of water compared to what he proposed selling; the proposed sale amounted to the proverbial drop-in-the-bucket.
Though water rights conflicts have been the exception rather than the rule in Minnesota, they have been a part of the country’s history ever since European settlers pushed west of the Mississippi and began trying to make a living through ranching and farming operations on the Great Plains. Streams and rivers that coursed through the properties of several landowners were common battlegrounds over how much of the flow could be diverted by any one landowner. People died in water wars from time to time.
Even today there are conflicts over water use, and especially in the West. In these times it’s typically between agriculture and recreational interests, including anglers who fish the region’s rivers and streams. A common question to be answered is how much of the often-limited flows should be allocated to agriculture? How much should be devoted to keeping fish alive, and fishing viable? One is a business that feeds us, the other is a tourism business; both make a contribution to local economies. For the record, history has tended to favor agriculture.
I clearly felt indignant, even militant, at the idea of “Minnesota water” being sold to Arizona or Utah, especially by a private party who would profit from it. But questions of water rights are sometimes not so black-and-white. Years ago a conservation group to which I belong, Trout Unlimited, filed a lawsuit in hopes of putting a “hold” or moratorium on new irrigation well permits in the watershed of the Straight River, near Park Rapids, Minnesota.
The point of the lawsuit was concern over a rapid increase in irrigated potato farming in the river’s watershed, driven by a new potato processing plant nearby. The concern was that the water pumped from underground aquifers for more irrigation would affect the water level—and thus the temperature—of that stream, and make it uninhabitable for trout. The idea was to freeze new irrigation until it could be determined—if it could be determined—that more irrigation would not be harmful.
I was rooting for protecting the trout, but can understand why farmers would have been rooting for more irrigation to grow more potatoes. Growing things is what they do. There was no moratorium placed on drilling new wells. The Straight River is still producing trout, though perhaps not as abundantly as it could. And no decision was made to research just what the tipping point might be.
White Bear Lake is both a Twin City suburb and a lake that share the same name. The lake became famous, or infamous, for having a water level that over a period of years dropped six feet, and in 2013 reached its lowest level ever recorded. Property owners on the lake had to extend their docks to try to reach water deep enough to float their boats, some without success. Real estate that would normally have been in demand could not attract buyers.
Municipal and residential water use—for everything from drinking, to laundry, to plumbing, to watering lawns—together were considered likely contributors to the lake’s decline. A lawsuit begun in 2012 accused the DNR of allowing the use of too much ground water, contributing to the lake’s depleted water level. A 2014 court settlement prescribed that DNR pursue water conservation and efficiency strategies with the area’s largest water users, and explore having six nearby communities shift from use of groundwater to above-ground sources. The case has gone back and forth in decisions by different court levels, until finally in July of last year the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed to review the case.
Meanwhile, use of groundwater in the area has declined measurably, perhaps because of DNR education efforts, and greater awareness of its effects on White Bear Lake. There have also been multiple years of above-average rainfall. In those years there have been multiple rain events of one inch or more. Heavy rainfalls run off rather than soak into the ground, and can raise water levels—including bodies of water like White Bear Lake. It has risen to the point that water is now moving through an outlet leaving the lake, for the first time in 16 years. Boats are floating again. Things appear just about back to normal. Or will that only be until the pendulum of rainfall abundance swings the other way?
For me, the question of whether to ship Minnesota water to other states or nations can be answered with an easy “no.” When it comes to who uses, and how we use, our waters here within the state’s borders, the answers are not so clear.