Minnesota lawmakers are considering whether to strengthen the penalties for farms, companies and cities that pump millions of gallons more water than their state permits allow.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said the state's rules are inadequate, offering almost no consequences for those who brazenly ignore permitting rules or pump drastically more water than they are allowed.
The lack of repercussions was apparent after several major violations of water laws and permits during the 2021 drought, when aquifers and wells across the state were stressed under the most severe dry spell in decades.
The DNR is allowed to issue an administrative penalty of up to $20,000. But that fine doesn't have to be paid so long as the violation is corrected. A proposal that's been heard by House and Senate committees would increase the maximum fine to $40,000 and allow the DNR to decide whether or not to forgive it.
It would also allow the DNR to revoke permits after egregious or repeat violations, and refer cases to law enforcement.
"The $20,000 limit is too low to deter violators," said Katie Smith, DNR ecological and water resources director.
During the 2021 drought, nearly 800 Minnesota farmers with high-capacity wells pumped 6.5 billion more gallons of water than their permits allowed, a Star Tribune review of water permit data reported each year to the DNR found.
Farms on land owned or operated by one company — R.D. Offutt Co., a potato-growing giant that has become one of the biggest water users in the state — were responsible for 23% of the excessive pumping.
Some of those individual farms pumped tens of millions of gallons more water than their permits allowed. Not only will they face no fines under the current law, but many won't need to pay for the extra water they used based on the tiered system the state charges high-capacity users.
The city of Blaine opened three new wells and pumped millions of gallons in 2021 and 2022 without getting permits. The DNR learned about it only after 141 nearby private well owners complained about running dry.
Blaine likely won't face any fines.
Farmers and the Irrigators Association of Minnesota asked lawmakers to carve out an exception in the proposed law for agricultural water use during droughts.
"We need some protection in years where we just have to go over," said Anna Bregier, vice president of the association and an owner of Prairie Farm Co. in Benton County. "Really, the only time farmers would go over is during a drought."
Prairie Farm has about 30 water permits registered in its name. During the 2021 drought, the farm reported using more water than allowed on nine of them, amounting to 199 million gallons of extra water.
The company did not report going over permit during nondrought years, state records show. Few agricultural irrigators report exceeding their permits outside of droughts.
If the state's intention is to make sure repeat violators are held accountable, it should make sure that farmers aren't punished during the rare dry years they need to save their crops, Bregier said.
"Small farmers cannot afford nor deserve these penalties," she said.
As irrigation technology has improved over the last several decades, so too has Minnesota's reliance on it.
In 1988, during the last drought that was as severe as 2021, a total of 2,700 crop irrigation permit holders reported pumping 88.4 billion gallons of water, according to state records. In 2021 that jumped to more than 6,000 irrigators pumping 160.5 billion gallons, the records show.
Even with a growing population, most other sectors of Minnesota's economy cut water use during that time, including for power generation, industrial processing and public drinking water supplies.
Supporters of the increased fines argue that if water permit limits don't apply during the driest years — when water supplies are most stressed — than what good are they?
"Permits are there for a reason and if people are violating them, it needs to be addressed," said state Rep. Heather Edelson, DFL-Edina.