Groundwater report focuses on sustainability

In 2008, the Freshwater Society issued a report — Water Is Life: Protecting A Critical Resource For Future Generations — that described a lack of consensus among groundwater professionals on the critical question of whether Minnesota’s patterns of groundwater use were sustainable into the future.

Cover of "Minnesota's Groundwater: Is our use sustainable?"This month, Freshwater issued a follow-up to that report. And its conclusion is that most groundwater experts now say that, at least in some parts of the state, we are using groundwater in ways that are not sustainable.

“On a statewide basis, we are not running out of water,” Jim Stark, the director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Minnesota Water Science Center, says in the report. “However, in many parts of the state we are using so much water that wildlife in lakes and streams is stressed and water for human needs is threatened. In those areas, we are approaching limits to water sustainability.”

The report also cites calls from Ali Elhassan, the Metropolitan Council’s top water planner, for some Twin Cities suburbs to consider switching from wells to the Mississippi River as their main source of water for growing populations.

The new 24-page report is titled Minnesota’s Groundwater: Is our use sustainable?

The report includes a statistical analysis that attempts to quantify — over time — the increase in groundwater use that has occurred. The analysis estimates that total reported groundwater pumping increased by about 2.8 billion gallons per year from 1988 through 2011. That adds up to a 31 percent increase over that period.  By comparison, the state’s population increased 24 percent in the same period.

Agricultural irrigation, the second-biggest use of groundwater and the fastest-growing use by far, increased  an estimated 73 percent during those years. Pumping by city water systems, the biggest single use,  increased an estimated 33 percent.

The  report finds at progress being made on groundwater on a number of fronts since 2008:

  • Greater attention to the connections between groundwater and lakes, streams and wetlands.
  • More focus on the precipitation flowing into aquifers and being discharged from them on an annual basis, rather than just the amount of water stored in them.
  • Movement by the DNR to consider the cumulative impact on aquifers of existing pumping plus all the well owners lining up to pump from the aquifers.

The report also outlines shortcomings in the DNR’s enforcement of laws requiring well owners to get state permits for high-capacity pumping. DNR supervisors told the Freshwater Society they believed 10 percent of irrigation wells may not have required permits. A Freshwater Society comparison of two state data bases suggests the percentage could be significantly higher.

Two key recommendations from the new report — a call for an increase in state water fees as an incentive for conservation, and a recommendation that lawmakers give the Department of Natural Resources authority to consider requests for high-capacity pumping before, rather than after, wells a drilled — are included in legislation approved last week by the Minnesota House.