Law lets DNR review wells — before they are drilled

A new law, effective July 1, gives regulators at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources an opportunity to review and comment on the potential impact of new high-capacity wells on groundwater sustainability before – rather than after – the wells are drilled.

That is a significant change from existing law, and it is one that the Freshwater Society recommended in a special report on groundwater sustainability issued in April. Read the 24-page report. Read the recommendations.

Cover of "Minnesota's Groundwater: Is our use sustainable?"Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, the author of a House appropriation bill that expanded the DNR’s oversight of large wells, credited the Freshwater report for helping win support for the provision.

“Pat Sweeney’s testimony before our committee about the number of unreported wells and the amount of water pumped from those wells was instrumental in our ability to pass the provision requiring a preliminary permit from DNR before the drilling of large wells,” Wagenius said. “I am very grateful for the huge help from the Freshwater Society.”

The testimony Wagenius referred to was delivered to the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agricultural Finance  Committee on March 5 by Patrick Sweeney, Freshwater’s director of research and communication.

The law change effective July 1 does not require pre-approval from the DNR before a high-capacity well is drilled. But it requires a person planning to seek a new permit to pump 10,000 gallons per day or 1 million gallons per year to inform the DNR of his or her intent before the well is drilled.

That notice will give the DNR an opportunity it previously lacked to inform the well owner about groundwater shortages and the demand from other wells and surface waters that might lead to limitations on pumping from that well and other wells in the area.

The Freshwater Society argued in its recommendations that the previous procedure in which well owners routinely spent thousands of dollars to drill new wells and then sought DNR permits to pump from them created pressure on the agency to approve the pumping at the level the well owner sought.

Another new statute, also part of a package of groundwater provisions included in the appropriation bill, gives the DNR commissioner  authority to require all well owners – not just the owners of high-capacity wells – to obtain state water-appropriation permits if their wells are in certain areas where the DNR has declared  that groundwater use may be unsustainable.

Still another provision in the new legislation directs the DNR to report to the Legislature by early next year what additional tools the agency needs to follow a groundwater sustainability standard previously enacted into law.

That standard applies to circumstances in which the DNR is setting limits on groundwater pumping and issuing permits for water use. The sustainability standard requires the DNR to “consider the sustainability of the groundwater resource, including the current and predicted water levels, water quality, whether the use protects ecosystems, and the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The appropriation bill gives the DNR $1 million to improve groundwater monitoring, planning and regulation in the state fiscal year beginning July 1 and $6 million in the next fiscal year.

Wagenius’ bill, as it was passed by the House, would have imposed small increases in state fees paid by all big users of groundwater and surface water. A companion Senate bill proposed that the $7 million in new spending be paid for from the Clean Water Fund, supported by the sales tax increase voters approved in 2008.

A House-Senate compromise resulted in the appropriation coming from the state’s General Fund, supported mostly by income and sales taxes.

The fee increase, which the Freshwater Society supported, would have provided a permanent increase in funding for DNR groundwater work. The General Fund appropriation makes future funding dependent on legislative action.

Two key recommendations in the Freshwater report, “Minnesota Groundwater: Is our use sustainable?” urged the DNR to:

  • Follow through on plans to begin declaring “groundwater management areas” in parts of the state where the agency believes groundwater use is unsustainable or may become unsustainable.
  • Devote significantly more effort to enforcing state law requiring owners of high-capacity wells – those pumping 10,000 gallons per day or 1 million gallons per year – to obtain permits from the DNR.

In a presentation June 17 to the Clean Water Council, Jason Moeckel, a DNR manager, said communities around White Bear Lake will be part of the first groundwater management area. The designation was requested in early May by the board of the White Bear Lake Conservation District. Read DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr’s response to the request.

From 2003 through early this year, White Bear Lake declined 6 feet and lost more than a fourth of its volume. A U.S. Geological Survey study blamed much of the decline on groundwater pumping by city water systems around the lake.

This year’s very wet spring has helped the lake rebound about 2 feet from its low point in January. View a chart showing the lake’s level and lake level measurements since 1924.

In his presentation to the Clean Water Council, Moeckel said a DNR effort to force compliance with the permitting requirement for high-capacity pumping is yielding an increase in permit applications.

Wagenius said that, for her, the most significant part of the Legislature’s consideration of groundwater policies and practices this year was the acknowledgement by lawmakers that action was needed to preserve and protect groundwater.

“It was a given that this was a problem, and I don’t think we had been there before,” she said.

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