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.

 

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.