There is an Old West cattlemen saying that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.
For Minnesota, so rich in lakes and rivers, the thought of fighting over limited water supplies seemed foreign. Not any more.
The Department of Natural Resources is planning to change its approach to approving new wells in light of limited groundwater and spiraling usage.
Some cities draw water from rivers, but 75 percent of the state’s water usage comes from wells tapped into underground aquifers. Officials know that at least some of those aquifers are being drawn down much faster than they can be replenished by rains and melting snow that eventually seep into them.
And the unseen problem underground sometimes causes problems on the surface. The extreme low water levels on White Bear Lake and some other lakes were caused, at least in part, by low water tables in the area.
One problem being addressed by the DNR is determining just what condition aquifers are in. While some data exist, the state really doesn’t have a firm understanding of how low many aquifers are and how much can be drawn from them without endangering future needs. The state is stepping up its study of water supplies and the DNR has begun some pilot projects in the northeast metro where water usage is looked at for a large region.
Looking at groundwater management for larger areas is greatly needed. The DNR reviews applications for new wells from large users on a case-by-case basis without looking at how additional water usage will affect area aquifers.
The change in approach has some cities, businesses and farmers concerned. Cities and businesses worry potential growth could be stymied if new well permits are more restricted. And farmers are increasingly turning to irrigation systems to water their crops.
But the new approach is necessary. Pretending water resources are unending is irresponsible. And there are other opportunities to allow for continued growth. In the metro area, more cities could hook into the Minneapolis and St. Paul water systems, which have plenty of excess capacity and draw much of their water from the Mississippi River, not from wells.
The state, cities and individual users also need to continue looking for more water conservation. (It’s estimated that permitted pumping of groundwater rose 31 percent between 1998 and 2011.) The change to charge each unit a basic monthly fee in multi-family housing was mandated by lawmakers looking to promote conservation. The impact of that law will widen in 2015 when volume discounts for water use will be prohibited.
The time is past when pumping water is done without thought of its implications. Moving toward reasonable changes now will prevent serious fights over water in the future.