Skepticism apparent as state tries new approach to Bonanza Valley water

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources last night launched its third project to deal with water availability differently than in the past. We asked Dan Haugen, a reporter and writer in Sioux Falls, S.D., to check out how it went. Here’s his report.

Some 200 central Minnesota farmers and others gathered Jan. 29 in Belgrade to learn about the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources plan to manage groundwater in the Bonanza Valley. (Dan Haugen/For MPR News)

BELGRADE — Central Minnesota farmers and well owners listened with skepticism and a dash of distrust at a public meeting Wednesday evening as officials from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources laid out plans to reshape the way it manages groundwater in the region.

Beneath the Surface: Minnesota’s Pending Groundwater Challenge

The Bonanza Valley, an area that stretches from southern Douglas County southwest to Paynesville in Stearns County, is one of three areas of concern the DNR has identified to develop a special groundwater sustainability plan. Wednesday’s meeting in Belgrade was the kick-off for a year-long public input process that’s intended to inform the plan.

Just under 200 people packed a high school auditorium to hear why their community has been targeted by the state and what the changes could mean for landowners who have small fortunes invested in farmland and irrigation equipment that depends on being able to pump billions of gallons of water out of the ground each year.

Groundwater use has been rising across the state, an average of 35 percent since 1988, DNR project manager Mark Hauck explained. In the Bonanza Valley, usage has spiked 175 percent during that time to more than 15 billion gallons in 2012, the highest ever recorded use.

That rapidly growing thirst, along with growing nitrate pollution, is what caused the DNR to flag the area for concern.

“We’re seeing flashing yellow lights,” Hauck said.

The state is observing seasonal drawdowns of anywhere from 10 to 80 feet in wells that it monitors in the area. The aquifer has continued to fully recharge every winter, but Hauck said the surging use raises questions about how long the trend will be sustainable.

The DNR is already required to consider sustainability when assigning water permits. The groundwater management projects in the Bonanza Valley, the north and east Twin Cities area and in the Park Rapids area, seek to clarify how the DNR should proceed by bringing together a variety of affected people, businesses and local officials.

DNR officials made no indication of what specific changes may result from the process and stressed that any solutions would be shaped by a series of public meetings over the next 12 to 14 months.

Still, some in the audience Wednesday feared that it’s a foregone conclusion that the state is coming to limit irrigation.

“Irrigation has made Bonanza Valley Bonanza Valley,” said Alan Loch, who owns farmland and works on a nearby hog farm. “You take away the irrigation, you take away the economic engine of the area.”

A Bonanza Valley Groundwater Management Area project advisory team will hold its first meeting Feb. 26 at the Pope County Courthouse. The public is invited to attend and can find details at http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/gwmp/index.html.