The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 28, 2013

Our View: DNR falls short on enforcing permits

The Free Press

— The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and those charged with making sure it has the resources and management to carry out its mission, should be embarrassed by its efforts to enforce water use permits.

A recent report by Minnesota Public Radio News showed that Minnesota water permit holders are illegally pumping billions of gallons of water beyond their permit limits. Some are using water in excess of 57 times their limit. Others use millions of gallons of water from Lake Superior and the Red River, for example, that exceed their permitted limits by three-fold or more. Even the DNR itself exceeds its permit limits in about a dozen cases, some for multiple years.

The report quotes DNR officials saying they don’t have staff, computers, time or money to monitor these violations. The violators can’t remember ever getting a letter from the DNR alerting them to their violations. DNR officials told MPR that they agency needs to spend its time processing record numbers of new permits that are complex.

Enforcing the existing permit has not been a priority, according to agency officials.

This leaky stewardship of the state’s most valuable resource is unacceptable and is far below expectations of environment-loving Minnesotans.

This lack of enforcement or even monitoring comes at a time when Minnesota water resources are threatened. Drought already has impacted aquifers and overuse threatens to create a further drain.

The U.S. Geological Survey has reported falling aquifer levels have lowered White Bear Lake in the Twin Cities, and Metropolitan Council experts say the main aquifer under the Twin Cities has dropped 40 feet in the last 35 years. Rural residents of southern Minnesota find themselves having to drill new wells as aquifers retreat.

The DNR hasn’t determined if use of water exceeding permitted levels impacts that aquifer, but it seems it would certainly have some impact. Answering that question needs to be near the top of the DNR priority list.

Rep. Jean Wagenius, chair of the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee, said the DNR should make enforcement of water permits a priority and the DNR should be able to conduct other duties in that area as well, including monitoring over-pumping, processing new permits and finding illegal pumping.

The DNR manager in charge of water permit monitoring, Dale Homuth, cited lack of budget, old computers and lack of staff to oversee the violations of water use.

Those concerns may be real. It’s hard to tell. But an MPR staffer working for a couple hours with a spreadsheet program was able to put together a report on violation patterns.

If resources for the department are a problem, the Legislature and governor need to step in and provide what’s needed. If this problems stems from management incompetence, and a lack of priorities, the DNR commissioner needs to make a change in that management.

The Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration need get to the bottom of this problem, take necessary action to make sure the DNR fulfills its responsibilities to Minnesotans and do it before Minnesota’s water resources are threatened further.