As water levels in White Bear Lake have fallen dramatically in the last decade, the costs to local residents, businesses and recreational users are inescapable.
After years of lawsuits, settlements and studies, members of the Minnesota Legislature are once again proposing a controversial plan to use taxpayer funds to directly augment the lake with water from the Mississippi River.
While we understand the desire for an immediate solution to White Bear Lake water levels, the proposed augmentation approach is unworkable and plagued by excessive costs, doubts about the system’s effectiveness, and the dangerous precedent it would set for our state.
In January, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources released its estimate on the potential range of construction and operating costs associated with augmenting the lake with water taken from either Sucker or East Vadnais lakes (each of which is backfilled by the Mississippi River). Construction costs ranged from $55 million to $107 million, with annual operating costs of $570,000 to $4.1 million depending on the final design and pollution mitigation requirements.
This staggering price tag is reason enough to look to other solutions. Moreover, diverting scarce state resources away from sustainable regional water supply planning in favor of a single lake is a short-term water management approach our region can no longer afford. Additionally, the outcomes of a direct augmentation approach are uncertain. A 2014 Metropolitan Council report found that augmentation would not guarantee the restoration of lake levels for White Bear or other local lakes and aquifers. Even if the solution were financially feasible, it would still be a risky investment for state taxpayers.
Finally, White Bear Lake isn’t the first and won’t be the last lake or stream to shrink at least in part because of the over pumping of groundwater. State-funded augmentation sets a dangerous precedent; taxpayers simply can’t be asked to build pipes to the nearest water source every time another lake or stream succumbs.
In a region where more than 70 percent of our water supply comes from over-used aquifers, our environmental and economic security calls for a more sustainable approach. One such alternative is to switch northeast metro community water supply systems to the abundant Mississippi River for their primary public water supplies, while retaining existing wells as backup systems should river levels fall in the driest years.
Surface water could come from either the St. Paul regional water system, which can treat up to 40 percent more water with existing facilities, and/or a new treatment facility built for the northeast metro.
Doing so will reduce the stress on our dwindling regional aquifers and help relieve pressure on White Bear Lake water levels, while also providing a more sustainable, reliable supply of water for local communities, residents and businesses.
While this approach would come with certain costs, they are more than outweighed by the benefits of transitioning the region toward a more naturally resilient water supply system that will allow our communities to grow and thrive for generations to come.
Trevor Russell is Water Program Director for Friends of the Mississippi River, a group that engages citizens to protect, restore and enhance the Mississippi River and its watershed in the Twin Cities region. Learn more at FMR.org.