Senate approves tougher water permit rules for DNR

Department of Natural Resources conservation officer Daniel Baumbarger stands in front of an irrigation rig he cited last year for pumping water without a permit. The DNR has told lawmakers it is hampered in its ability to issue tough penalties. Jackson Forderer for MPR News

The Minnesota Senate last night passed legislation that would allow state officials to penalize anyone who uses large amounts of groundwater without a permit.

The measure would give the Department of Natural Resources authority to fine unpermitted groundwater users up to $20,000.

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That has become an issue as the state tries to get a better handle on who is using how much groundwater in Minnesota.

Irrigation is the fastest growing use of groundwater, and an MPR News investigation broadcast Monday chronicled how hundreds of farmers likely are pumping tens of thousands of gallons of water without DNR authorization or knowledge.

“We need to send a strong signal that there’s a consequence if you’re stealing water without a permit,” Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, told MPR News reporter Elizabeth Dunbar. “There’s a growing recognition that it’s a very precious, limited resource. We don’t want to just give lip service to the fact that state law provides for sustainability of groundwater.”

A House spending bill does not include language about water penalties, so the measure would need to survive during conference committee negotiations.