Jay Famiglietti

The traditional way of measuring groundwater levels is labor-intensive. You drill a bunch of wells in different locations, take measurements over time and combine the data to understand groundwater levels and flows.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is working on mapping groundwater in the state, but there are still hundreds — if not thousands — of wells yet to be drilled. An understanding of groundwater quantity is crucial — three-quarters of Minnesotans get their drinking water from groundwater, and it’s also used to irrigate crops in parts of the state.

That’s what makes a special satellite used by a professor at the University of California, Irvine so exciting. Jay Famiglietti, also a senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, is using the satellite to measure changes in mass on land. From those measurements, researchers can figure out how much water is there, he said.

“We can literally put together maps regionally and globally of the places that are gaining and losing water each month,” said Famiglietti, who will talk tonight about the research at a lecture sponsored by the Freshwater Society.

The satellite can zero in on an area the size of a large aquifer — about 60,000 square miles — but it can’t pinpoint areas as small as the three regions in Minnesota where DNR officials are looking at managing groundwater more closely. Famiglietti said using additional data can allow researchers to focus in on an area of about 20,000 square kilometers, and two other similar satellites to be launched in the future will likely be able to focus in on even smaller areas.

The satellite doesn’t tell researchers how much water is groundwater versus surface water, so the data must be combined with other measurements being taken on the ground, he said. Still, it offers the ability to measure water levels much faster than traditional methods, he said.

And because groundwater is such a critical part of our water supply, it’s important to be able to keep tabs on how much is there, he said.

“It hasn’t been well-measured or monitored. The general public is not even really aware of how important it is to our water supply,” Famiglietti said.

In addition to identifying shortages, the satellite data can help find areas that are prone to flooding. Famiglietti said the next step for researchers is to work with the state and regional agencies that manage water to incorporate the data into flood forecasts and regional drought monitors.

Daniel Roland/AP

Gov. Mark Dayton’s task force on broadband is recommending the state spend $200 million next year to develop greater access in areas that don’t meet state speed goals.

The money wouldn’t come close to building everything the state needs for universal access but would expand on the $20 million the Legislature approved this year for a handful of public-private partnerships to build needed access to homes, farms and businesses, task force chairwoman Margaret Anderson Kelliher said.

The state’s Office of Broadband expects to start taking applications for that money by the end of the month and to make project awards by the end of the year.

This year’s money should help pay for four to six projects that would show interest and need in rural Minnesota for better  service, state  Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, said Thursday. Experience with those projects could help lawmakers decide on whether to expand funding next year,  he added.

Schmit and Kelliher spoke in Minneapolis at a broadband conference sponsored by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration that drew officials and telecommunications providers from a variety of states.

It is estimated that about 300,000 Minnesota households don’t have access to Internet speeds that they should to function well in today’s economy and that to supply access would cost between $900 million and $3 billion.

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, who helped foster Republican support for the money in the past session, told the conference he understood there are places where the private market alone will not provide what is needed.

In the hope of learning as much as possible from this year’s projects, Kresha said, “I’d rather see exemplary failures than mediocre successes.”

Receding water levels of White Bear Lake.  Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

The lawsuit over White Bear Lake’s low water levels will continue after a Ramsey County judge declined to take sides on motions for summary judgment.

A group of White Bear Lake homeowners has asked Judge Margaret Marrinan to find the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at fault for the lake’s low water levels, saying the agency allowed too much groundwater pumping from the aquifer connected to the lake.

But the judge said in an order issued Friday that evidence presented in the case so far does not lead to a clear conclusion.

“Whether the (DNR’s) management of water appropriation permits or its management of this resource actually violated fiduciary duty to the public remains a fact question,” she wrote. “The volume and quality of exhibits and opinions produced by all parties cannot lead the court to any other conclusion.”

While the homeowners cite increases in groundwater pumping of the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer, the DNR has pointed to weather patterns as reason for the lake’s plunging water line.

The judge has said the homeowners have legal grounds to sue.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Geological Survey continues its research on the relationship between groundwater and White Bear Lake in the north and east Twin Cities suburbs.

The water level on White Bear Lake has rebounded by about 2.8 feet from its all-time low set in 2013 but is still down several feet from a decade ago.

Here’s the ruling: