WORTHINGTON — At a time when drought threatens state water supplies, scores of water permit holders in Minnesota are illegally using billions of gallons more water then they're entitled to.
Over the last six years, hundreds of individuals, businesses and even state government agencies have pumped more than their permit allows, according to state Department of Natural Resources records. But violators face few consequences for these misdemeanor violations. Even in a two-year drought, DNR officials admit they don't spend much time enforcing permit limits.
The violations come from nearly every category of water user: cities, crop irrigators, power companies, private businesses, golf courses, schools, government agencies, even a church. All have a state permit which lets them take a set amount of water each year from underground wells, rivers, lakes and wetlands. But many aren't obeying the terms of their permit.
"There's no doubt that a lot of them are appropriating more water than they're currently authorized," Dale Homuth, manager of the department's conservation assistance and regulations section.
The DNR could enforce the permits. But Homuth said stopping the excessive pumping is not a high priority. Instead, he said, the DNR's top objectives include processing new water permits.
"The number of new permit applications we're dealing with are at record levels the last couple of years," Homuth said. "Everyone of those is complicated, controversial, takes a lot of staff time. And we have the same staffing levels we've had for 20 years dealing on these water appropriation permits."
Another top priority is finding and dealing with illegal, non-permitted wells, he said.
But state Rep. Jean Wagenius, who chairs of the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee, disagrees with the policy.
Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, said drought is stretching the state's water resources. She said the DNR should give over-pumping equal priority to processing new permits and finding illegal pumping.