A compromise between White Bear Lake homeowners and the lake's surrounding municipalities could help resolve a decadelong conflict over how to supply drinking water to the area without draining the lake.
The proposed deal would give a dozen communities more time to meet court-ordered reductions in their water use. In turn, those east metro cities and towns would have four years to plan for a new drinking water source and plan for how best to recharge an overpumped aquifer blamed for the lake's receding shorelines.
"This is a big step in the right direction," said Richard Allyn, a lawyer for the homeowners who sued the state over water use 10 years ago. "It's been very hard since the order to get the towns to do anything in terms of planning."
Under the proposal, which has bipartisan support, lawmakers would give $3 million to the Metropolitan Council to lead the study, which would evaluate switching public drinking water supplies from groundwater to the Mississippi River. The proposal would delay any changes to the towns' current water permits for four years — postponing court-ordered amendments from taking effect until 2027.
It would also allow the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to give a new water permit to the city of Lake Elmo, which wants to drill a new well to keep up with a growing population and replace water supplies ruined by PFAS contamination.
The four-year delay is needed to make sure that all the businesses and homes in the area will continue to have the water they need, White Bear Lake Mayor Dan Louismet said.
"We're asking to continue to pump water at the current rates that we have for decades," Louismet said.
The delay is reasonable so long as it helps the communities and state push forward on finding a long-term or permanent solution, Allyn said.
"That's the most important thing: that the parties start working on a long-term plan," he said.
White Bear Lake homeowners sued the DNR in 2013 after lake levels had fallen to an all-time low. Ramsey County District Judge Margaret Marrinan ruled for the homeowners, who were supported by experts from the U.S. Geological Survey, saying that the DNR mismanaged the lake for decades and allowed communities, golf courses and businesses to pump too much groundwater from the aquifer that feeds the lake. The DNR unsuccessfully appealed the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Marrinan ordered the DNR in 2017 to come up with strategies for cutting water use and for the communities that drew from the aquifer to find an alternative source of water. In the meantime, she ordered the department to review and revise the water permits issued around White Bear Lake to make sure they were at a sustainable level and to impose a collective annual withdrawal limit for the aquifer.
State Rep. Brion Curran, DFL-Vadnais Heights, said the proposal will give the communities the time, money and support they need to meet the judge's orders.
"The aquifer in White Bear Lake is being used at an unsustainable rate," she said. "But we need time and resources to get to where we need to be."
The funding would be used to create a working group, led by the Met Council, and including all municipalities that fell under Marrinan's order: Stillwater, Mahtomedi, Hugo, Lake Elmo, Lino Lakes, North St. Paul, Oakdale, Vadnais Heights, Shoreview, Woodbury, New Brighton, the city of White Bear Lake and the township of White Bear Lake.
The group would have until June 2027 to produce a report that would evaluate potential surface water supplies and other ways of conserving or recharging the aquifer.