Drastic water-use changes proposed to steady White Bear Lake levels

22 Feb 2022 6:16 AM | John MacKenzie

By  Greg Stanley and Jennifer Bjorhus Star Tribune

FEBRUARY 19, 2022 — 2:00PM

State regulators say court order would require them to limit people to 55 gallons of water per day, and cut off other water users such as schools and businesses altogether.  

Minnesota regulators say that keeping White Bear Lake at the court-ordered water level would require such draconian restrictions they'd have to cancel all water use by schools, hospitals and businesses in a 5-mile radius.

Tens of thousands of residents in at least 10 east metro communities would be restricted to 55 gallons of water per person per day — a prospect that one city official called "absolutely absurd."

That's a far cry from the 90-gallon restrictions ordered by Judge Margaret Marrinan in 2017 to keep the lake at 922 feet above sea level. Marrinan ruled that the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had mismanaged the lake for decades, allowing its waters to be drained.

The DNR issued the warnings in documents it filed last week in Ramsey County District Court as part of the long-running legal fight over the management of the underground aquifer that fills White Bear Lake and supplies local drinking water. The dispute pits lake-front residents, environmentalists and beachgoers against communities that draw water from beneath the lake and that oppose against any lawn watering or per-capita use restrictions.

The documents filed included a report by DNR hydrologist Glen Champion in which he concluded that the court-ordered per-capita restrictions and bans on residential irrigation would not be enough.

"Far more aggressive water use reduction strategies will be required," Champion wrote.

Katie Crosby Lehmann, a lawyer who represents the White Bear Lake Restoration Association in its fight against the DNR, cautioned that the agency's latest analysis has not been reviewed by outside experts. She said it relies on at least some information that was already rejected in court, such as the agency's views on any effects of evaporation and residential irrigation on lake levels.

"They're saying that the sky is falling and I worry that it could be used to justify no action by the DNR, which would put us in a terrible place," Crosby Lehmann said. "We just don't know the credibility or the reliability of this model."

The DNR does seem, at least, to be finally recognizing the severity of the problems around the lake, she said.

The DNR said it's awaiting a response from Marrinan, who came out of retirement to oversee the case. The litigation has already reached the state Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the disclosures touched off a storm of concern as stakeholders await a hearing date.

"It will be an interesting hearing," said White Bear Township lawyer Chad Lemmons. "I think the DNR also realizes this can't work."

Lemmons called the restrictions "untenable." He said there's a sense of disbelief among communities.

In an interview, Katie Smith, the DNR's director of the Ecological and Water Resources division, said the agency is just trying to follow the law. It's concerned about the impacts on people, she said.

"The DNR must follow this path of changing the permits unless there is some clear-funded plan for other alternatives," she said. Switching to different water sources is one of several possibilities, she said.

The DNR hasn't started changing water permits or cutting off users, Smith said. It first wanted to alert the court to the dire situation, she said. Smith characterized 55 gallons of water a day per person a "reasonable" amount although it could hamper lawn watering, depending on how the household uses water.

The conflict stems from 2013, when White Bear Lake homeowners and other lake advocates first sued the DNR. Back then the lake hovered at historically low levels and its shoreline dried up. The shrunken lake rebounded after several years of unusually high rainfall, but started creeping down again with last year's drought.

The long-running dispute could potentially be solved if cities pulled their water from the Mississippi River, as Minneapolis and St. Paul do, rather than tapping groundwater. But the Legislature hasn't been willing to pay for a new regional system, which the Metropolitan Council estimated in 2014could cost between $150 million and $620 million.

Lake Elmo Administrator Kristina Handt called the DNR analysis on what it would take to meet the withdrawal limit "absolutely absurd."

"Water won't be allocated for our schools, hospitals, businesses and nonprofits, thereby harming the public health and welfare of our communities and killing economic development — all so that folks can visit the Ramsey County beach and lakefront owners don't have to be bothered to put extensions on their docks in drought years," Handt told the Star Tribune via e-mail. "The Legislature must act to correct this egregious ruling in order to save not only the vitality of the east metro but our very livelihoods."

The situation has prompted a flurry of legislative activity, said Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, whose district includes White Bear Lake. Wiger said he supports the city's position "that we need to have some flexibilities to address reality."

Lake Elmo's Handt said she supports a Senate proposal by Sens. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, and Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes. The bill, SF 3055, would carve out an exemption to the law that prohibits public waters from being drained. If enacted, the municipalities within a 5-mile radius of White Bear Lake would still be able to get water permits, so long as they comply with a DNR-approved water plan .

The threat of losing water to hospitals, stores and other industries shows why the city of White Bear Lake first challenged the court order, and why it is now calling on lawmakers to help, said White Bear Lake City Manager Lindy Crawford.

"Our communities need a better plan than the District Court's order," she said.

Link to Star Trib Story here

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