Listen: Water solution (Dunbar)

MPR’s Elizabeth Dunbar reports about the rise of water demands and potential options in the metro area. Water conservation/restrictions, utilizing St. Paul water for other cities, and pumping water from the Mississippi River are among the ideas and efforts being discussed.


2014 MNSPJ Page One Award, second place in Radio - Hard News Report category


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SPEAKER: Billions of gallons of Mississippi River water flow through the Twin Cities every day, but less than a third of us are actually using that water. Meanwhile, planners are concerned that people are relying too much on groundwater. They point to dropping water levels in White Bear Lake as a warning sign. Elizabeth Dunbar reports on an idea to reverse that trend by supplying treated Mississippi River water to more homes in the metro.

JIM GRAUPMANN: Today, we were around 55 million gallons a day coming in. There's two--

ELIZABETH DUNBAR: Jim Graupmann says that water goes to 415,000 people in Saint Paul and half a dozen suburbs. Graupmann manages water production for the city. He's standing over a dark, rectangular hole looking down at water that still smells like the Mississippi River. It's about to enter Saint Paul's water treatment plant after a journey in two pipes so big could stand up in them. They're 7 and 1/2 feet in diameter.

The tour of Saint Paul's water treatment plant ends here in the pump room. Water that's ready to drink is pumped into the city's water mains. A lot of it will be tapped to water lawns, but Graupmann says demand has gone down in the past 15 years.

JIM GRAUPMANN: Especially in the city of Saint Paul, there's very few people that sprinkle. We have six high-service pumps. Most of the time we're using one or two. So, yeah, we could pump a lot more water.

ELIZABETH DUNBAR: The idle pumps at Saint Paul's water treatment plant are 8 miles from the epicenter of the groundwater conundrum, White Bear lake's muddy shoreline, where docks have been extended to reach the water. The cities just north of the lake, like Hugo, Forest Lake, and Lino Lakes are booming and they're tapping more water from the aquifer beneath the lake.

Take Hugo, population 13,000. It's doubled in size in the past decade and may grow to 23,000 in 25 years. The Metropolitan Council is studying whether a place like Hugo could connect to Saint Paul's water system and use less groundwater.

BRYAN BEAR: As long as we can get water that is clean, high quality water, and it can be delivered reliably, and at the same cost that we're able to deliver it for now, we're very interested.

ELIZABETH DUNBAR: Bryan Bear is Hugo's city administrator.

BRYAN BEAR: Somebody's going to have to make a big investment to bring that water all the way up here.

ELIZABETH DUNBAR: The first part of a study by the US Geological Survey says increased pumping in Hugo and other cities is depleting the aquifer. White Bear Lake feeds into that aquifer. And because of the depletion, researchers suggest there's now more space for the lake water to flow into it.

Bear says the situation is complex and he'd like to see more research before cities are forced to make huge investments or shut down their wells. But he agrees that ensuring there's enough groundwater supply for the future is important. Half of the city's water is used for lawns and landscaping. So like many other cities in the region, Hugo has watering restrictions. And the city is trying to cut back even more by using stormwater for irrigation instead of tap water.

BRYAN BEAR: This is what we see as low-hanging fruit. We don't have to treat that to drinking water standards. We don't have to mothball all our wells, don't have to figure out how to get water from some distant place. These are things that we can start to do right now, we've already started to do, and we think they're making a difference.

ELIZABETH DUNBAR: Officials at the Met Council say they're well aware that the Northeastern suburbs are concerned about how much it would cost them to switch water sources. Ali Elhassan manages water supply planning at the Met Council.

ALI ELHASSAN: Equity is a big question that many of the cities now are thinking about. They are thinking, how we can make the investment now instead of waiting until 2030 to make a bigger investment in solving a bigger problem.

ELIZABETH DUNBAR: Elhassan says the study will help give cities in the Northeast metro a range of options. But he says doing nothing is not an option.

ALI ELHASSAN: What's the cost of not having the water? It's always going to be cheaper to build the system right now than wait until you don't have the water. Without water, you cannot have anything else.

ELIZABETH DUNBAR: Saint Paul has the water and plenty of extra capacity. The engineers would just have to figure out how to get it to the Northeast metro. It would take years to do that and actually see higher water levels in White Bear Lake.

So the Met Council is also studying a short-term solution, piping Mississippi River water into the lake to fill it up again. It's an idea that already has skeptics, but the Met Council says it's worth looking at. Preliminary cost estimates for both solutions should be ready by the time the state legislature convenes in January. Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio News.

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