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Groundwater conservation: not just for White Bear Lake anymore

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It's a change in a state famous for an abundance of lakes, but Minnesota is getting more serious about conserving groundwater.

Minnesota Public Radio reports on the state's first groundwater management area (GMA). It's north and east of the Twin Cities and includes White Bear Lake, which has dropped six feet in a decade. As MPR explains, the Department of Natural Resources will be able to restrict even small users from drilling new wells to pump groundwater in the area.

The DNR sees groundwater management areas as a new tool to use in areas where aquifers are overused. The agency plans two more – one north of Willmar and another near Park Rapids – in places where irrigation has affected groundwater.

An article in Finance & Commerce last month noted that the new approach to groundwater conservation could bring a host of changes ranging from different farming methods to overhauls of city water systems. A DNR official quoted in the article says groundwater depletion is a serious problem but is not a crisis, adding that Minnesota has time to make adjustments.

The non-profit group The Freshwater Society studied Minnesota's groundwater last year and concluded that pumping groundwater to meet day-to-day needs is not sustainable. The Society says the state law requiring businesses that pump large amounts of water to get a permit from the DNR is not well enforced. One of their suggestions is that the DNR be allowed to issue fines against violators, instead of working through public prosecutors to file misdemeanor charges.

White Bear Lake's dramatic drop in water level has made it Exhibit A in the case for conserving groundwater. MPR says researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey found that diminished rain and snow contributed to the drop. But it found that municipal wells were drawing down the lake level.

In 2012 property owners on the lake argued in a lawsuit that the DNR had mismanaged the groundwater. In September a judge rejected the DNR's move to have the suit dismissed.

The Star Tribune reported last month that the city of Hugo, which is just north of White Bear Lake, plans to substitute stormwater for well water when it comes to irrigation and eventually hopes to treat it for indoor use.

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