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Critics: Report dismisses White Bear Lake proposal

The St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and the White Bear Lake Restoration Association accuse the Metropolitan Council of writing off a proposal to pump water into White Bear Lake before experts have fully studied whether it could restore lake levels that are about 3 feet below normal.

A draft report released Wednesday listed three ways to ensure the northeast metro continues to have an adequate water supply. All of the measures aim to use water from the Mississippi River to relieve pressure on the area’s increasingly stressed Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer.

The chamber and the association favor an option that would pump 2 billion gallons of river water a year into a chain of lakes. The water would then flow into White Bear Lake. They prefer this so-called “augmentation” approach because declining lake levels have hurt businesses and homeowners around the lake.

The report estimates the proposal would cost $50 million to build plus $300,000 annually to operate and maintain. It also cautions that it is unlikely to benefit aquifers or other lakes and may not help White Bear Lake either.

Chamber President Matt Kramer said the other options are equally speculative, but the report didn’t call out any uncertainty there. Furthermore, all state policies have some amount of uncertainty. How is this different?

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has already permitted augmentation for Gilfillan Lake in North Oaks and Snail Lake in Shoreview, he said. Water was pumped into White Bear Lake from the early 1900s until 1973.

“What we are seeing is an easy dismissal of any attempt to resolve White Bear Lake,” Kramer said. “If they don’t want to restore it, then just say that.”

Greg McNeely, chairman of the lake restoration association, has the same worries. The association sued the DNR over allegations that the agency let cities use too much groundwater, thereby depleting the lake. The case is in mediation. Now he thinks the Met Council is giving augmentation short shrift.

“No one seems to want to even try to look at it,” he said.

Ali Elhassan, the Metropolitan Council’s water supply planning manager, said the report just provides the information that’s available at the moment. More information will be available on augmentation in the coming years.

But unlike the uncertainty over augmentation’s effects on groundwater and lake levels, there’s no doubt groundwater would be restored if communities move from aquifers to river water, as the other two proposals would do, he said. The six communities nearest to St. Paul’s system use 5 billion gallons of water a year. Water they draw from the river is water they aren’t drawing from the aquifer.

The alternatives to augmentation would divert river water to northeast communities — either by extending St. Paul’s existing system or by building a new water-treatment plant in Vadnais Heights. The Met Council isn’t recommending any particular option, Elhassan noted. The Legislature merely charged the council with compiling information on costs, feasibility and impacts.

Expanding St. Paul’s system would cost between $5.2 million and $623.2 million depending on whether the system is extended just to North St. Paul, to select northeast metro communities or to all of them. There would also be $1.3 million to $18 million in annual operation costs.

Building a new water treatment plant would cost $229.7 million or $609.7 million, depending on whether it serves some northeast metro communities or all of them. Annual operation costs aren’t yet known.

“Yeah, I had sticker shock. It’s a Minnesota Vikings stadium-scale project,” said Trevor Russell, watershed program director for the Friends of the Mississippi River. “But when you’re talking such big effects on so many communities, $600 million, or one Vikings Stadium, seems like a bargain.”

Pumping water into White Bear Lake would only address the symptoms of the larger problem: over-reliance on the area’s groundwater, Russell said. It’s an expensive gamble that could divert resources away from efforts to move away from aquifers.

“We need to get off these [aquifers] before they dry up and before there’s an economic catastrophe,” Russell said. “Refusing to invest, or pushing back against sustainable water planning, seems completely counter to the purported mission of chambers of commerce.”

White Bear Lake City Manager Mark Sather said the debate is a conflict between short-term and long-term goals. The aquifers aren’t going to dry up in the next few years, so those focused on water supplies can afford to wait until all the information is available before making a decision.

Lake advocates, on the other hand, want to see levels return to normal as soon as possible, he said. They don’t want the water to drain away as they wait for further analysis, such as a U. S. Geological Survey study on the relationship between groundwater and surface water that’s not due until 2016.

“When you’re making a decision that has the public policy implications we have here, you’ve got to have the best information possible,” said Sather, whose city is on the DNR’s side as a defendant in the lake lawsuit.

The Met Council’s final report isn’t due until October. Meantime, the Met Council will be reviewing it with stakeholders like area cities, businesses and property owners.

“This is the [report author’s] opinion, and people think it’s the last word,” McNeely said. “And we’re going, ‘Well, if it’s the last word, we’re going to lose our lake.’”

James Warden is a staff writer for Capitol Report’s sister publication Finance & Commerce.

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