DNR settles with White Bear Lake groups over lake levels

Settlement will ask state to pay for Shoreview, North St. Paul, Vadnais Heights to change water source

A settlement agreement reached between the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and groups concerned about water levels in White Bear Lake could have implications for nearby cities, including Shoreview, Vadnais Heights and North St. Paul.

Announced Dec. 1, the settlement between the DNR and two plaintiff groups—the White Bear Lake Restoration Association and White Bear Lake Homeowners’ Association—states that all three groups will, per the DNR website, “support efforts to develop a surface water supply to serve area communities.”

The suit, filed in 2012, contends the DNR, by allowing 13 area cities to use groundwater for their water supplies, permitted too much groundwater use in the area, resulting in a lowering of White Bear Lake. The settlement puts the suit on hold for three years; it was set to go to trial in March 2015.

Move to St. Paul water service

According to a release from the plaintiff’s law firm, Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, LLP, recent low water levels on White Bear Lake have resulted in “exposed lakebed extending hundreds of feet from what was once shoreline,” and an all-time low in lake levels of 918.84 feet in January 2013.

The latest DNR lake level readings, taken Oct. 30, had the lake elevation at 921.22 feet, which is three feet below the ordinary high water level, the lake’s consistent high water level that leaves evidence on the landscape.

In the settlement, the DNR and the two lake groups agreed to support a plan found in the Met Council’s June 2014 Draft Water Feasibility Report, to move area cities from groundwater to surface water sources.

Could be $200 million

The first phase of the plan would involve moving the cities in which White Bear Lake is located—Mahtomedi, White Bear Lake and White Bear Township—along with the cities listed previously, to the St. Paul Regional Water Service, which taps into the Chain of Lakes and the Mississippi River as well as groundwater for its supply.

Nearby cities such as Roseville, Little Canada and Maplewood already contract with St. Paul for water.

Funding for the moves, according to the DNR website, would come from the State Legislature. Cost estimates range widely, from $155 million to $230 million. The settlement pegs August 2017 as a deadline for securing construction funding.

What about Hugo?

A timeline for a second phase, which would move the more far-flung cities of Centerville, Circle Pines, Columbus, Hugo, Lexington and Lino Lakes off groundwater, was not defined in the settlement.

The DNR also agreed in the settlement to establish a yet-to-be-determined protective lake level for White Bear Lake, and to be mindful of that level in making future permitting decisions regarding the lake. City water conservation goals were also included in the settlement.

Shoreview waits to see

Shoreview Public Works Director Mark Maloney said groundwater concerns have been on the city’s radar for some time and that the settlement could affect city plans in the immediate future. Shoreview is a municipal water provider and draws from six wells.

“We are on the cusp of a very large investment in our water supply here,” Maloney said, alluding to a just-approved $11 million water treatment plant in Shoreview, slated for construction in June 2015. “This is an interesting discussion to be having at this time.”

Maloney said the issue of what to do about the water treatment plant—to proceed or put it on hold, along with other water issues—would be discussed at a Dec. 8 city council work session.

Maloney said the terms laid out in the settlement aren’t set in stone. “The Legislature could say no” to the Met Council plan, he said.

He also sees a little bit of “above our pay grade” in the language the DNR used to forward the idea.

“[The DNR] very carefully chose their words to say ... ‘support,’” Maloney said, adding the agency seemed to be “recognizing that to change the way water is delivered is going to take a huge amount of financial and political will, and it’s beyond their purview.”

Many aspects ‘not clear’

At least one view from the Legislature backs up Maloney’s uncertainty about the plan’s reception at the Capitol. In a letter to constituents sent Dec. 3, DFL Sen. Chuck Wiger, who represents Maplewood, wrote that the Legislature would closely scrutinize any plan with that kind of price tag.

“[T]he legislature will not want to act until we are sure an investment of this size will fix the problem, and I don’t believe we are at that conclusion quite yet,” Wiger wrote. “Additionally, it’s not clear who would be sponsoring and putting together this legislation.”

“These things are just always going on,” Maloney said. “For a city like Shoreview, we’re like, ‘Yeah, we’ve been in that discussion.’”

Otherwise, he said, it would be business as usual.

“We’re a water provider, we produce and deliver drinking water in real time ... In the interim we’ve gotta keep doing what we’re doing.”

North St. Paul questions

North St. Paul is also a municipal water provider, drawing on five wells, the last of which was drilled in 1977. City Manager Jason Ziemer says at this point, there are more questions than answers.

“No one seems to have agreed on either side why the lake levels are going down, though the inference is that these 13 cities are to blame,” Ziemer said, noting that North St. Paul’s groundwater use hasn’t increased in decades.

Since 2006, Ziemer says the closest the city has ever gotten to its DNR-set per-year pumping limit of 584 million gallons of water was in 2007 when it pumped 498 million gallons.

According to the DNR’s website, the agency is on the same page as Ziemer.

“The DNR does not agree the science supports the plaintiffs’ theory that groundwater pumping is the primary cause of low water levels on White Bear Lake,” the website says.

Backed by the findings of a “nationally recognized hydrologist,” the DNR contends the changing lake levels are likely caused by climate shifts, and that the water level fluctuations can be beneficial to lakes.

DNR did say on its website that groundwater in the area could be overused on the future, and thus, “it makes sense to act now” to switch area cities to surface water sources, a point about which Ziemer is skeptical.

“Everything is so far out in front,” he said. “This plan may look great on paper, but I find it interesting that a lawsuit settled by two parties can have an impact on 13 cities.”

Loss of local control

Ziemer pointed out that switching from municipal sources to the St. Paul water system would mean a loss of local control over the utility, and could result in some unintended consequences for existing municipal customers and infrastructure.

In the case of North St. Paul, Ziemer said the switch would mean going from a non-chlorinated and non-softened water system to one that does both, with likely utility rate increases, as well.

He noted that residents would no longer elect the people who control their water rates, and that the loss of water utility revenue would mean that upkeep of the water system, still a responsibility of the city, would be more expensive.

Ziemer also wondered what might occur due to a wholesale switch from one water source, to another.

“Aren’t we going to have issues, at some point down the road, with surface water?” he asked.

“We can agree that there’s probably an issue here that needs to be managed, but the local community perspective is being overlooked,” Ziemer said, asking rhetorically, “When are cities going to be asked to help find a solution instead of being dictated to what’s going to happen?”

Ziemer said, in light of the settlement, the city would look at scheduled capital improvement plans and would be speaking to its legislators, as well as taking a closer look at the settlement agreement.

“North St. Paul has prided itself on providing good water, so there’s concerns of when we’ve got our own system, it functions well,” Ziemer said. “How are we being forced into this without say?”

Vadnais Heights waits to see

Vadnais Heights operates four municipal wells. City Manager Kevin Watson says he’s concerned over the settlement and needs to put the agreement under greater scrutiny to better understand its implications. He said the city has no major projects planned that could be affected by a switchover to St. Paul water.

“There’s going to be a lot of conversations about this for the next few years,” Watson said.

Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7824. Follow him on Twitter @mmunzenrider.

The St. Peter-Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer underlies southeastern Minnesota, much of Iowa, southern and eastern Wisconsin and parts of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A number of cities in the northeast metro draw their water from the aquifer, including North St. Paul, Shoreview and Vadnais Heights. Those concerned about lake levels on White Bear Lake contend that area use of groundwater is lowering the lake levels.


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