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

Piping Mississippi River water into White Bear Lake would cost about $50 million upfront, but it’s not certain the move would restore the lake’s water levels, according to a new report from the Metropolitan Council.

White Bear Lake is down several feet, and property owners on the lake have sued the Department of Natural Resources, saying the agency failed to manage the situation. Research by the U.S. Geological Survey showed a link between increased groundwater pumping in the growing northeast metro suburbs and lake levels, but weather patterns have also contributed to the problem.

Perhaps of greater concern than the lake, though, is ensuring that growing nearby suburbs will have enough water to meet expected needs. The Legislature asked the Met Council to study some possible solutions both to White Bear Lake’s low water and to concerns about unsustainable groundwater pumping in the region. In a draft report today, the council outlined three solutions and preliminary cost estimates:

  • Use 2 billion gallons a year of Mississippi River water to augment White Bear Lake using St. Paul’s water system. Besides capital costs of $50 million, this would cost about $300,000 annually to maintain. The study says it’s unlikely the augmentation would help address larger concerns about groundwater supplies, and it also says it’s uncertain the water being pumped into the lake would restore previous levels or prevent the lake from dropping further.
  • Build a new water treatment system for northeast suburbs using the Mississippi River as the source. The study gave two different cost estimates for this option, designed to relieve some of the demand on the area’s municipal wells. The less expensive solution would cost about $230 million and serve the communities of Vadnais Heights, White Bear Lake, White Bear Township, Mahtomedi and Shoreview. Serving another seven cities — Centerville, Hugo, Lino Lakes, Circle Pines, Columbus, Forest Lake and Lexington — would cost $610 million.
  • Have the northeast suburbs switch from groundwater to surface water supplied by St. Paul’s system. Three estimates were provided for this option: $5.2 million to expand St. Paul’s service only to North St. Paul, $155 million to expand service to North St. Paul, Vadnais Heights, White Bear Lake, White Bear Township, Mahtomedi and Shoreview and $632 million to serve all 13 communities in the study area.

The consultants have not completed their work, and one of the major tasks left is to estimate how much groundwater would be saved in each scenario. More details are due in October, but the Met Council’s manager of water supply planning, Ali Elhassan, said he was surprised at the steep costs of connecting all of the 13 suburbs to either St. Paul’s system or a new treatment plant.

“If we want to connect communities beyond those (first) six cities, it’s going to take a huge infrastructure development and update,” he said.

But Elhassan said it’s important to note that those cities account for about 62 percent of water use among the 13 communities.

Besides studying White Bear Lake augmentation and switching cities from groundwater to surface water, the Legislature has also asked the Metropolitan Council to look at other groundwater solutions, including stormwater reuse, groundwater recharge and conservation among bigger industrial users.

“‘There is no one silver bullet that can solve the problem. It might take more than one approach,” he said.

State Rep. Jean Wagenius, whose committee has led groundwater management efforts, agreed that the problem is complex, and she said the preliminary findings didn’t provide enough details yet for lawmakers to make any decisions.

“I think we need a lot more good information,” she said.

And on the White Bear Lake augmentation question, Elhassan said the Met Council study probably won’t be able to answer what water levels the project would achieve. He said the U.S. Geological Survey is still studying groundwater-to-surface water relationships in the region and won’t have results until 2016.

Meanwhile, the cities of Centerville, Circle Pines, Hugo, Lexington and Lino Lakes are working on their own study looking at the feasibility of a joint water utility. The results of that study are expected this fall.

Conserva founder and COO Russ Jundt, right, and technician Kevin Say evaluate an irrigation system in Eden Prairie. Jundt said new technology and better design will cut outdoor water use at the home by 40 to 60 percent. Elizabeth Dunbar/MPR News


Many Twin Cities homeowners see their water bills spike each summer as they start watering their lawns. Here are some tips — from modest changes to the extreme — that could help you use less water this summer.

  • Check for leaks, wet sidewalks and streets. This applies to both built-in irrigation systems and hose-sprinkler setups. Any water that escapes on to streets and sidewalks is wasted water, and you’re paying for it.
  • Get a rain barrel. Instead of watering your lawn with drinking water, capture rainwater from your gutters.
  • Get a rain sensor for your irrigation system. New systems have been required to have these for several years, but older systems don’t always have them. A rain sensor stops an irrigation system from going on during the rain.
  • Go high-tech with your irrigation system. We replace our iPhones frequently, but Russ Jundt, founder of the irrigation company Conserva, says many home irrigation systems are 20 years old. You can put them on a timer, but that often leads to overwatering. New technology including evapotraspiration sensors, soil moisture sensors and a device loaded with 40 years of historical weather data.
  • Shut off the timer on your irrigation system and run it manually. Many suburban dwellers have their irrigation systems set to water every other day according to their city’s lawn watering restrictions. But turf expert Sam Bauer, a University of Minnesota Extension educator, said they are likely over-watering.
  • Use the “footprint method” to decide when to water. For those without high-tech gadgets, Bauer recommends watering after grass shows signs of wilt. Look for leaves to turn a little purple, and when you step on the grass, it doesn’t spring back right away.
  • Collect tuna cans. If you don’t have a built-in irrigation system, spread tuna cans around the yard and run your sprinkler. Bauer said the lawn only needs 1/4 inch of water a week to stay alive. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recommends an inch a week for a healthy lawn, including rainwater, so some weeks it isn’t necessary to water.
  • Tolerate some brown. Our most common grass species in Minnesota, Kentucky bluegrass, can go dormant during a dry summer and bounce back. If we all tolerated a little more brown grass, we could save billions of gallons of precious groundwater every summer.
  • Replace part of your lawn with native plants. Native plants don’t need as much water. Expanding your garden also means less mowing.
  • Change your species of grass. When re-seeding or starting a new lawn, consider planting fescue or other species that have proven to tolerate drought better than Kentucky bluegrass and perennial rye grass. The University of Minnesota Extension has tested some varieties, and Bauer said there’s a lot of potential for them.
  • Mow, but not too much. Keep your lawn no shorter than 3 1/2 inches in height. Longer grass helps the lawn retain water better.

Beneath the Surface, Minnesota’s Pending Groundwater Challenge.

  1. Listen Jim Stark, director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Minnesota office, talks with MPR News’ Cathy Wurzer

The recent heavy rains have been a drought-buster, leaving Minnesota entirely drought-free for the first time in a long time. But that’s not the same thing as ending concern about the state’s groundwater, Jim Stark, director of U.S. Geological Survey in Minnesota, told MPR News’ Cathy Wurzer on Morning Edition today.

Unlike big parts of the West, Minnesota is drought free this week for the first time in a long time.

Aquifers — water-containing rock and sand layers underground — that are near the surface are responding to the heavy rains, Stark said. “They’re up several feet in many cases and that is a really good thing for our groundwater systems.”

But aquifers that are deeper and that are often the main source of drinking and other water for many city systems respond more slowly. “There’s a lag time,” Stark said.

“We still continue to be concerned about groundwater in many parts of the state, White Bear Lake being one,” he said.

White Bear Lake has been the object of concern for years since its level starting dropping. Home- and business-owners have sued the state, arguing that the Department of Natural Resources should have done more to limit groundwater pumping by cities around the lake. The U.S.G.S. has attributed the decline in the lake both to lack of precipitation and to increased groundwater pumping.

“White Bear Lake is responding (to recent rain),” Stark said. “It’s up a couple feet from its low. But these events that we have going on right now really are temporary with respect to our major groundwater systems. We’ll continue to be concerned about sustainability in those aquifers on long term.”

White Bear Lake is back up to 2008 levels, still several feet below the levels of a few years prior.

“That recharge is slow and it responds over long periods of time, years to decades. These events we see now won’t be noticeable in those deeper aquifers for some time. There’s a lag time of years to effect water levels significantly in those deeper systems. It depends on the depth of those systems and their connection to the land surface but years to decades.”

That’s why, Stark said, water conservation is still important in many parts of the state.