"DNR needs to do all three," Wagenius said.
But so far that hasn't happened. The DNR's water permit data show the vast majority of the state's more than 7,000 permit holders stay well under their maximum allotment. But others seem to ignore it.
The Gerdau Ameristeel plant in Duluth, for example, has taken as much as five times its permit limit of 100 million gallons a year from Lake Superior. In central Minnesota, the Green Lake Nursery far exceeded its pumping limit from the Redwood River practically every year for two decades. One year it pumped 46.4 million gallons or 57 times its limit. The Twin Cities suburb of Ramsey consistently exceeds one of its permits, some years using as much as five times the amount allowed to water athletic fields.
The Brainerd school district has a permit maximum of three million gallons a year, but according to DNR data the district's actual pumping reached nearly 19 million gallons in 2006.
MPR News contacted several permit violators, none of them remembered any letter, phone call, email or personal visit from the DNR alerting them that they were taking more water than their permit allowed.
Permit holders that exceed their limits rarely face any penalties, even though the DNR is authorized to step in. Homuth said that's because he doesn't have enough staff to identify violators.
"We're struggling with a 20- to 30-year-old data base system," Homuth said. "We still get paper that we have to mail out and get back from over 7,000 appropriators, and then manually enter all this data into this data base."
MPR News was able to identify serial violators with just a couple hours of work and a spreadsheet program, and review the complete files for 11 of the biggest abusers.