Freshwater report examines groundwater sustainability

Are Minnesotans over-using groundwater in ways that could leave us short of water – for human uses and for the environment – in the future? The short answer to that question is: Yes, in some places across the state.

A new Freshwater Society report 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.

Cover of "Minnesota's Groundwater: Is our use sustainable?"“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 Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Metropolitan Council’s top water planner warn that current pumping levels are unsustainable, or close to becoming unsustainable, in some areas.  The shrinkage of White Bear Lake over the last decade is a graphic illustration of that unsustainability.

The 24-page Freshwater report looks at progress being made on groundwater on a number of fronts:

  •     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.

And the report recommends higher state fees for groundwater pumping as a spur to conservation.

Read a Freshwater newsletter article about groundwater regulation and funding changes approved by the 2013 Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton. In the article, Rep. Jean Wagenius credited the Freshwater report for helping win passage of a provision allowing the DNR to review plans for high-capacity wells before — rather than after — the wells are drilled.

Read a PDF of a Pioneer Press op-ed column in which Freshwater Society President Gene Merriam supported enactment of the fee increases. Read a Star Tribune editorial backing the fee increases. Read a MinnPost column on groundwater that cited the Freshwater report..