Savage water: a suburban study


An example of how complicated source protection and water supply planning is in an urban area like the metro region can be seen in the recent experience of just one Twin Cities suburb: the City of Savage.

Articles in our water quality series:

PFCs from 3M: an ongoing source of debate by Anna Pratt
Measuring water quality in Minneapolis, St. Paul lakes by Anna Pratt
Twin Cities water: good to the last drop? by Rich Broderick
Drinking across the river in Minneapolis by Rich Broderick
Water as an economic resource by Rich Broderick
Savage water: a suburban study by Rich Broderick

In 1980, Savage, located on the south bank of the Minnesota River, had a population of 4,000. At last count, that figure had risen to 25,000, with most of the growth spurt occurring since 1995 when the Bloomington Ferry Bridge was expanded into a freeway with a direct connect to 494, opening up all of Scott County to development.

To meet growing demand, the city sought permits to dig new wells to tap again into what had been the main source of the municipal water supply, the Jordan Aquifer. But this time, the permit process ran into problems.

Within the city’s boundaries lies a calcareous fen – a unique form of wetland that is home to a rare plant community – as well as a trout stream called Eagle Creek. Both the fen and the trout stream are protected under state law and both are fed by upwelling from the Jordan aquifer. The DNR, which is one of the main agencies that must sign off on well permits (another is the Department of Health) said no to the new wells.

“Every time we tap into the Jordan, it creates a cone of depression,” says Savage city administrator, Barry Stock. “The more we take out, the more it lowers the groundwater with the potential of depriving plants in the fen of water.”

Talking about water
aquifer – a layer of permeable, sand or gravel that contains large amounts of water
groundwater – water that is underground, as opposed to surface water in lakes and rivers
potable – fit for drinking
point source –specifically site of contamination, such as a wastewater outlet
non-point source – diffuse source of pollution, such as run-off from lawns
watershed – a region that drains into a particular river or body of water

Aquifers, of course, do not recognize municipal boundaries. Prior Lake and Burnsville also draw from the same part of the Jordan aquifer as Savage, though Shakopee, which is closer than either city to Savage, does not because of a natural barrier formed by a geological formation. Prevented from drawing more water from the Jordan aquifer, the three growing suburban communities formed the Southwest Metro Groundwater Work Group 10 years ago to pool their efforts and find sustainable sources of water that would not endanger wetlands or trout streams. Savage has just received permission from the state to tap into the Mt. Simon aquifer, which, at 1,000 feet, lies 600 feet deeper than the Jordan, and is working with Burnsville to retrieve water from the Kramer quarry, located off 35-W just south of the Minnesota River. The quarry penetrates the water table there and until now whatever water fills the pit has simply been pumped into the river. Burnsville and Savage are getting $13 million in state aid to build a plant to treat the water for human consumption.

To Stock, the funding request seems only fair. “Savage has some of the highest water rates around,” he points out. “We are paying to protect resources, like the fen, that have statewide significance.”

In response to situations facing Savage and other outer communities, the Legislature passed a bill in 2005 calling upon the Metroplitan Council to create an orderly process for water supply planning throughout the seven-county region. The council’s just issued its report on the first-phase of what will be a three-year process, calling for a simpler, streamlined water-supply planning and decision-making process, but one – and this is the critical part – that is linked to a comprehensive regional master water supply plan that will be drawn up by the Met Council.

“In the last few years, we’ve heard a lot of things like, ‘We should have had a plan for Savage’s growth before this happened,’” says Chris Elvrum, the Met Council’s Manager for Water Supply Planning. If and when the Met Council’s recommendations are approved and implemented, metro communities will include water supply planning at the beginning rather than the end of any development planning, with participation by the DNR, the Department of Health, and the Met Council. That should help reduce regulatory delays, in large part by steering communities away from water supply “solutions” that, like Savage’s plan to draw more water from the Jordan aquifer, have no chance in the end of getting approval.

“Right now,” Elvrum points out, “we don’t have a well-coordinated planning approach to water supply issues. Each community is doing a good job of planning, but are not working in coordination with their neighbor’s. Our goal is to rectify that situation.”