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MPR: Farmers irrigating without permits as groundwater levels drop

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An in-depth new MPR News investigation reveals that Minnesota farmers in many cases are sucking up valuable public water for crop irrigation without state permission.

About 1,200 crop irrigation wells were drilled from 2008 to 2012, but more than 200 are operating without a state permit, the investigation shows. Almost 200 others were operated without a permit until the past year or so.

The disclosure is important because groundwater is increasingly viewed as a vulnerable Minnesota resource, and unlicensed use of it erodes the state's ability to manage and track it. Minnesota conservation officials note that in some parts of Land of 10,000 Lakes, water levels are dropping.

It's possible that millions of gallons of water are likely being pumped without the knowledge of state officials, MPR reports. Some farmers are improving their yields – and profits – as they evade state oversight and, in many cases, fees, the MPR investigation found.

Nearly 90 percent of Minnesota's agricultural irrigation is done in 13 counties, according to a report issued last year by the nonprofit Freshwater Society. Among its conclusions, the report notes that current groundwater use in some areas of the state are unsustainable.

Tension over groundwater is heightened in a number of areas across Minnesota, including urban settings, MPR notes.

In the Twin Cities metro, the northeast suburbs are growing as the aquifer that serves them shrinks, and the municipalities are eyeing the Mississippi River for future water needs, MPR reported last fall.

Other cities, including Park Rapids and Marshall, have spent millions of dollars to respond to dropping water levels or contamination, MPR notes. In Fairmont, the city council last year approved emergency water restrictions in the middle of a drought.

And in Cold Spring, a water-use battle between a brewery and officials who fret about trout habitat has reached a boil.

In parts of Stearns, Kandiyohi and Pope counties, the Bonanza Valley is one of three groundwater management areas the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has established in the state, along with the Straight River near Park Rapids and White Bear Lake in the Twin Cities metro area, the St. Cloud Times reports.

That DNR project is aimed at determining how sustainable the current groundwater use is and whether action is needed to protect its availability in the future.

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