Questions about the Northeast Metro water supply plan

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In the land of 10,000 lakes, we have a water shortage. According to the Metropolitan Council:

“With more than 70 percent of the region’s water supply coming out of the ground, we are mining our groundwater and sending it downstream at the expense of our water supply, natural amenities, quality of life and economy. It’s a practice that is neither practical nor sustainable, as we can attest from the example of White Bear Lake,” said the Council’s Water Supply Planning Manager Ali Elhassan.

This is a particular problem in the northeast metro. White Bear Lake is looking less like a lake all the time. The Met Council has released a report with a few solutions to this issue, all which involve relying more on surface water (rivers) and less on groundwater. The proposed solutions range in price from $155 million to over $600 million. The options are myriad, but all involve long pipes to existing or new water treatment plants that use water from the Mississippi River. Options for areas served vary, but the study area includes communities totaling 157,823 people in 2010 (208,580 projected in 2040).

However, the report seems insufficient to me. It lacks answers to lots of important questions that members of the Metropolitan Council (and residents of the region) should be asking. Here are a few I came up with as I was reading:

  1. Where is the conservation alternative? The cost and feasibility of reducing water use are not analyzed as part of the report. Building nothing and simply asking/incentivizing/requiring people to use less may be the cheapest option. According to the report, water use in 2010 was 92 gallons per person, per day in these communities. The ratio of peak day demand to average day demand ranges from 1.7:1 in Forest Lake to 5.9:1 in Lexington. The report hints that this is “mainly attributed to irrigation and outdoor water use needs”. Sprinkling lawns in other words. Many options exist for conserving (potable) water – from retrofitting toilets, sinks and showers, to using captured rainwater to irrigate, to simply paying people to remove lawns and replacing them with low-water alternatives. For the cost of the alternatives to serve all northeast communities with new water supply (~$600 million), you could pay every household over $1,400 to remove lawn, and keep paying them $40 every year after that. Without an analysis of conservation alternatives, this report seems inadequate.
  2. What is water being used for in these communities? Is it for industrial processes, mostly flushing toilets/running showers, or primarily watering lawns? The answer to this question might help identify other options for conservation, and help determine how cost-effective they might be. Currently the report reads as if the Met Council’s only objective is to supply as much water as these communities desire, regardless of where it’s going or being used for, or whether that rate of use is sustainability (financially or physically).
  3. What is the capacity for water rates to cover new costs? By my estimation, the average annual cost for water service in these communities is $171 per household. If all of this revenue was put towards paying off the $600 million project, it would take 62 years to pay back (assuming no interest). If annual water rates were raised by $100 per household, it would take 106 years to be paid off. If the cost of these improvements are spread across the whole region, Met Council members should demand a much more comprehensive analysis, not just of cost to communities, but how communities vary in water usage and peak demand. (The report notes an analysis of rate impacts to communities is underway, and will be presented in fall of 2014).
  4. Related to #1 and #3, is water valued properly? If a family of four can have all it’s annual water needs (65,000 gallons, estimates the report) delivered for $171, perhaps there is little incentive for conservation. If you’re living in Forest Lake (part of the study area), you’re probably spending over $15,000 per year on transportation. A really affordable mobile phone plan will cost you around $250 annually. I think we all probably agree that water delivery is viewed as a basic function of government and should be cheap and accessible to all. But people do respond to price signals. Water in this part of the metro looks pretty cheap on a per-gallon basis when compared to systems across the country. Perhaps there are creative ways to price potable water being used for non-essential purposes.
  5. Why are we flushing so much usable water into the river? When I went to a ThriveMSP event last year, one of the water supply experts said that we flush about as much treated wastewater into the Mississippi every day as we use in our drinking water system. If the problem is really that we’re “mining groundwater and sending it downstream”, why not re-infiltrate that water instead of just doing more flushing? There may be lots of technical reasons why this won’t work, but the water experts at the event seemed to think it might be an option.
  6. How will the shape of future growth help solve or exacerbate this problem? These communities are designated “Suburban” through “Diversified Rural”, according to ThriveMSP 2040. This means planned densities from 5 units per acre to 4 units per 40 acres. This type of development could mean a lot of turf grass. Local governments can encourage/require new developments, through their zoning codes and development review processes, to protect groundwater recharge areas, infiltrate stormwater on-site or capture it for irrigation, and use low-water alternatives to turf grass. If development approaches remain water-intensive, growth in these areas could mean more and bigger pipeline projects in the future. The Met Council should be looking closely at how projected growth in these communities will impact groundwater resources, and how their planning authority can be used to shape it.