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Are Minnesotans using too much water? Report provides insights

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Are Minnesotans overusing groundwater in ways that could leave us short of water - for human needs and for the environment - in the future? The short answer to that question is: Yes, in some places across the state.

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A new Freshwater Society Report estimates that total reported groundwater pumping increased by about 2.8 billion gallons per year from 1988 through 2011. That adds up to a 31 percent increase over that period. By comparison, the state's population increased 24 percent in the same period.

Agricultural irrigation, the second-biggest use of groundwater and the fastest-growing use by far, increased an estimated 73 percent during those years. Pumping by city water systems, the biggest single use, increased an estimated 33 percent. Pumping by industries that rely on their own wells, rather than public water supplies, declined.

The new report that includes the statistical analysis of water use is titled: Minnesota's Groundwater: Is our use sustainable? It is available at www.freshwater.org.

The report cites finding by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Metropolitan Council that current pumping levels are unsustainable, or in danger of becoming unsustainable, in some areas in the Twin Cities and in Greater Minnesota.

The shrinkage of White Bear Lake - it has lost one-fourth of its volume in a decade - has been attributed to groundwater pumping by nearby municipal water systems. The lake's decline is a graphic illustration of the unsustainable groundwater use that the water experts say afflicts, or threatens to afflict, other parts of the state, as well.

The 24-page Freshwater report looks at progress being made on groundwater on a number of fronts in recent years:

Greater attention to the connections between groundwater and lakes, streams and wetlands.

More focus on the precipitation flowing into aquifers and being discharged from them on an annual basis, rather than just the amount of water stored in them.

Movement by the DNR to base permits for groundwater pumping on the cumulative impact on aquifers of existing pumping plus all the well owners lining up to pump from the aquifers.

The report also outlines shortcomings in the DNR's enforcement of laws requiring well owners to get state permits for high-capacity pumping. DNR supervisors told the Freshwater Society they believed 10 percent of irrigation wells may not have required permits. A Freshwater Society comparison of two state data bases suggests the percentage could be significantly higher.

The report recommends higher state fees for groundwater pumping as a spur to conservation. It particularly urges adoption of higher summertime municipal water fees as a means of discouraging wasteful lawn sprinkling.

Several recommendations made in the Freshwater report, including the fee increase, are included in legislation pending in the 2013 Legislature. The report is a follow-up to a 2008 Freshwater report: Water is Life: Protecting a Critical Resource for Future Generations.

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