Land of 10,000 lakes — and not enough water


Think the end of the drought means no water problems? Think again. In lots of places, we are over-using groundwater, and the situation is getting worse by the year, if not by the month. That means more disappearing lakes and shorelines and, potentially, shortages in drinking water ahead, even in water-rich Minnesota.

The Freshwater Society issued a report on Minnesota water last month that should be required reading for every legislator. White Bear Lake may be the first warning sign. Nearby residents have seen the water receding from the shoreline. The report says that it has lost “more than a fourth of its volume in the last decade.” Why? Nearby cities are pumping groundwater for drinking water. 

Groundwater pumping in Minnesota has increased by 2.8 billion gallons per year over the past 23 years, or 31 percent for that time, according to the report. If you get your drinking water from a well, you depend on groundwater. That’s the case for three-fourths of all Minnesotans.

Pumping groundwater for drinking is only a part of the drain, however. Irrigation is growing even faster. Back to the report:

“Irrigation wells, which water only about 3 percent of the state’s cropland, pump more than 25 percent of the groundwater reported pumped by high-capacity wells in the state most years. They are the second-biggest user of groundwater and – by far – the fastest-growing use.”

Pumping is part of the problem. Another part is sending the water downstream, instead of cycling it back into the ground. Run-off from paved areas, agricultural fields that are tiled to drain water, even wastewater that’s treated and then released into rivers leave the state’s aquifers permanently. [For more detail on this, see Minnesota draining its supplies of water from the Star Tribune.]

As Ron Meador pointed out in MinnPost on May 1, we don’t even have all the information we need on groundwater use and depletion, in part because “Minnesota requires permits and reports only for enterprises pumping in excess of either 10,000 gallons a day or a million gallons a year.” He does the numbers and figures that his household’s annual water use is about 27,000 gallons.

“Which means that  if you happen to have a well in, say, the Bonanza Valley, you can pump nearly 40 times as much as our heedless household without having to get a permit, file a report or pay a penny for the public resource you withdraw.

“If you do take out a permit, you can pump up to 50 million gallons a year for your minimum fee of $140 …”

All of which means that we need to start paying attention to our water on a statewide level — right now, before it’s too late.