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Antidote worse than the disease?

ST. PAUL — As White Bear Lake dries up like a puddle in the sun and underground water levels drop, who’s to blame?

Along with the usual suspects of suburban lawns and golf courses, a new competitor for water is emerging — companies ordered to pump up and clean polluted groundwater.

According to well permit records from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, state-ordered pollution pumping removed 3.3 billion gallons from Twin Cities-area aquifers in 2012. That’s enough to fill 155 miles of Olympic-sized swimming pools lined up end to end.

In Washington County, the problem is especially acute: The city of Woodbury, with a population of 65,000, pulls about 3 billion gallons a year from the Prairie du Chien Aquifer with its several municipal wells. 3M pumps nearly half as much — about 1.4 billion gallons a year — just to control pollution, and most of that comes from wells in Woodbury.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency orders companies that pollute to pump up and clean the groundwater. It’s necessary, the agency says, to protect public health.

But as aquifer levels drop, officials are asking whether the perceived threat is worth sacrificing billions of gallons of water a year.

“It might be that the antidote is worse than the disease,” said Woodbury city engineer Klay Eckles.

Some are saying it’s time to stop what they call the rivers of wasted water — and invest the money to recycle it.

“It’s a no-brainer to try to reuse that water,” said Sean Hunt, hydrologist with the state Department of Natural Resources.

That’s what is happening in Arden Hills.

The U.S. Army has one of the largest metro wells for cleaning polluted water, pumping up 956 million gallons annually at the former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant. Some of the cleaned water is pumped into a gravel pit, where it sinks down and recharges the aquifer. Some is pumped from existing New Brighton municipal wells, cleaned and sent into the city water system.

Water supplies in the eastern Twin Cities area have become an issue with the dramatic shrinkage of White Bear Lake. Over roughly seven years, the lake and the aquifer under it have dropped by about 6 feet.

A flurry of responses has followed.

The Legislature approved $10 million in 2013 to study and manage groundwater supplies.

Many people engaged in finger-pointing, blaming new housing and commercial development and the watering of lawns and golf courses.