Where the water goes in the north and east metro area. Minnesota DNR

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources makes it clear it will consider limiting future groundwater pumping in the north and east part of the Twin Cities.

It’s also promising that it won’t take that step without more rigorous monitoring of wells, review of existing water permits and the creation of a transparent regulation process.

That’s at the heart of a draft plan developed for the North and East Metro Groundwater Management Area Plan and released this week.

The plan is the result of more than a year’s discussion among officials from the DNR, cities, businesses, homeowners and others involved in a groundwater planning process that is new to Minnesota.

The area affected by the plan includes all of Ramsey and Washington counties, southern Anoka County and the part of Hennepin County east of the Mississippi River. It’s one of three places in the state where the DNR is trying to involve local “stakeholders” in appreciating that groundwater — the source of water for most Minnesota households — is a limited resource that is in danger of being pumped at unsustainable levels.

The draft plan will go through review before it is made final. But it lays out the challenge: About 30 billion gallons of water gets pumped out of the ground every year on average, and the amount is expected to increase by 20 percent over the next 15 years. In the meantime, trout streams and wetlands in the area are under pressure, contamination in groundwater is a concern and water levels in most of the observation wells the state uses have been going down.

The draft says there are 259 permitted wells in the area. (A permit is required if you pump more than 10,000 gallons a day or a million gallons a year; homeowners typically do not need a permit for personal-use wells.) Of those, 16 used more than their permits allowed in 2012. For three of the permitted users, in fact, the average amount pumped over five years exceeded the permit level.

Most of the water pumped in the area goes into city water systems, and demand on those systems varies. The draft plan notes that almost half the cities in the area fail to meet a metro area goal that residents demand no more than 75 gallons per day per capita.

The DNR is responsible for the state’s groundwater and for issuing permits to tap it. The draft plan calls for it in the next several years to study lakes and streams more thoroughly and to add three wells to its network of 60 to monitor groundwater levels. It will create a new data system to ensure better public access to water information, and it will determine how much water can be pumped before sustainability is threatened.

“Where needed, (the) DNR will limit current and future appropriations,” the plan says. In the next five years, the DNR will evaluate all the permits it has issued and adjust what is allowed if it finds the pumping threatens the aquifer’s sustainability.

Jason Moeckel, who oversees the groundwater management effort at the DNR, said officials “may find that an amount permitted is more than can be pumped. But that is not the case yet.”

Although the state’s new approach to groundwater management stresses the involvement of lots of people and organizations with a stake in pumping water, Moeckel was clear to say that the DNR maintains ultimate authority.

What the new approach promises, he said, is that all stakeholders will know more about how sustainability is being defined and how the state is moving to maintain the ability to maintain groundwater levels.

Broadband cables. Daniel Roland / AP file

Cities, counties, cooperatives and telecommunication companies big and small are seeking more than $44 million in state money to build better broadband networks around rural Minnesota.

That’s more than twice the amount approved by the Legislature this year, so by mid-December, state officials expect to determine which of 40 projects will receive money.

All the money must go to projects that will provide high-speed Internet access to areas that have no or poor service, and lawmakers required that organizations seeking the money arrange for at least a 50 percent match of local money as well. The program’s goal is to get service to areas that don’t seem lucrative enough for private providers.

It’s been estimated that about 300,000 Minnesota households lack sufficient Internet access to participate fully in an economy that relies increasingly on the Internet. The so-called Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant program would put only a tiny dent in that figure this year’s money.

Some of the Internet providers seeking money are big. CenturyLink, for example, is asking for $383,000 to let it provide service to about 1,000 households in the Foley area east of St. Cloud.

Some are small. Halstad Telephone Company in northwestern Minnesota wants $1.65 million to get service to about 250 households.

Some applicants are cities.  Annandale, whose officials have been vocal in their criticism of the service the city’s cable and phone companies provide, wants $2.4 million. One is a tribe. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe plan is seeking $136,000 for a project.

Some applicants are old hands at broadband and fiber optics. Federated Telephone Co., which received federal stimulus money several years ago to expand an already robust fiber network, is asking for almost $8 million in two separate projects in Big Stone and Swift counties.

But at least one is new to the game — R-S Fiber is a cooperative in Renville and Sibley counties formed recently for the sole purpose of bringing fiber service to those areas, particularly to farms. It is seeking $1 million.

Broadband proponents who designed the program originally sought more money, and they expect that the interest shown will be an impetus to seek more from the Legislature this winter. Gov. Mark Dayton’s task force on broadband development has suggested that he ask for $200 million this year.

If he does, it will pose an interesting choice for the House of Representatives, now under the control of Republicans who are urging both fiscal tightness and more attention to rural needs.

The most recent satellite data is showing a drop in Minnesota’s groundwater in recent years, and at least one scientist is suggesting that a main reason may be a change in when rain falls.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Watch magazine earlier this month showed what a pair of satellites measuring tiny changes in the earth’s gravity say about the nation’s groundwater levels, combining that with groundwater use. The headline was the very obvious drop between 2003 and 2012 in California, New Mexico, Texas and other parts of the South where drought has been persistent and pumping has been vigorous.

Brown areas show groundwater declines from 2003 to 2012. Blue areas show increases. Small circles show heavy pumping. Source: Climate.gov, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But Minnesota stands out as well, not so much because of high pumping but because of a contrast with nearby regions in water drawdowns. Most northern tier states have experienced rising groundwater levels. (As we reported in our “Beneath the Surface” project, three quarters of Minnesota households get their water, not from rivers or lakes, but from wells that tap groundwater.)

Minnesotans have become more aware of pressures on the state’s groundwater availability and quality, but a problem is the difficulty in understanding what’s going on down where you can’t see anything. Satellite data is the newest tool to add to the measurement of water levels with monitoring wells, albeit not the most precise one. (One of the lead researchers analyzing the NASA data, Jay Famiglietti, was at the University of Minnesota in September as part of a Freshwater Society’s speaker series. )

For more on how the satellites, known as GRACE for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, measure groundwater, see this.

So why would Minnesota see a decline in groundwater levels? One answer could be the increase in farm irrigation in parts of the state. In the sandy soils of west central Minnesota, farmers have increased their pumping substantially, and in two places the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is trying a different approach to getting farmers, businesses and others to come to agreement on how much groundwater is used and who gets to use it.

But Don Rosenberry, a U.S. Geological Survey research hydrologist in Denver who studies Minnesota lakes, said scientists in his office have been looking at lower groundwater in wells in Cass County “and we’ve been wondering if it might be due to a change in the timing of rainfall.”

Minnesota rainfall — the source of recharging groundwater supplies — has been increasing over recent decades. But rain has increased, particularly in big storms, in the summer and decreased in spring and fall, Rosenberry said. “The big summer events rarely turn into groundwater recharge. . .So there might be a story here in addition to irrigation.”

It’s an idea he said the USGS looked at a few years ago and decided it needed more data or statistical power. It might be worth returning to the notion now, he said.