Groundwater Protection

In the first week of March 2014 two state legislators introduced bills to undermine intelligent groundwater management and attack our foundational trout stream protection law.  While it does not appear that these blatant attacks on sustainable management of groundwater and public fisheries have gained much traction so far, it bears close watching.

Declining supplies of groundwater.

Aquifers in many areas of the state are being been steadily depleted through excessive, unsustainable pumping of groundwater.  As demand for new high capacity wells soared, our antiquated water appropriation laws hindered the MNDNR’s ability to turn away unsustainable permit requests.  Existing permit holders are currently pumping more drinking water than local aquifers can supply.  Recent updating of our water laws means that the MNDNR has at last begun to reign in “deficit spending” from these finite water supplies.

Preserving Cold Spring’s namesake

One aquifer being steadily depleted is located under the central Minnesota city of Cold Spring.  A brewery located in Cold Spring, MN began to substantially increase its pumping of groundwater in the mid and late 2000s.  It is now removing groundwater from the local aquifer at an unsustainable rate.  A wild brook trout stream, Cold Spring Creek or “Brewery Creek”, located nearby is threatened by declining base flows from excessive groundwater extraction.  Because the self-sustaining fishery will be the first obvious casualty of continuing this trend of unsustainable pumping, it has found itself in the cross hairs of two politicians.

Canaries with fins

Groundwater springs are the lifeblood of our trout streams.  Trout depend upon a steady supply of cold groundwater to keep streams cool enough in summer, and warm enough in winter.  In recent decades the rising demand for permits to remove groundwater from our aquifers has outstripped the finite supply.  Once viewed as limitless (and mistakenly still viewed as such by some), many aquifers are being depleted by excessive, and unsustainable pumping.  As aquifer levels drop, the volume of natural springs entering trout streams begins to decrease.  Where unsustainable pumping continues, eventually too little groundwater remains in the aquifers to supply trout streams with the minimal base flow required to support trout.  For this reason, wild trout are a good indicator of the health and sustainability of our groundwater systems.  Trout are recognized by informed individuals as finny versions of “canaries in a coal mine”, which can warn us of dangerous changes occurring underground.

DNR accommodation

The DNR has been extremely accommodating of the brewery, even granting it temporary permits to pump at increased levels. The DNR has shown great patience working with the brewery and City of Cold Spring, allowing them several years to secure alternative water supplies.  The brewery has publically promised to work with the DNR to secure other water sources.  Unfortunately, two state legislators prefer to ignore the facts of finite and declining water supplies and have instead introduced bills attacking the messengers.

1.  Shoot the canaries!

Trout streams are a rare natural resource in central Minnesota, and statewide make up just 7% of our streams and rivers.  They are highly valued by the public and protected through designation by the DNR.  Documented impacts to Cold Spring Creek from excess groundwater removal first raised concerns about the declining aquifer levels.  One provision of state water law provides the DNR with an additional tool to deny additional unsustainable pumping where a designated trout stream will be adversely impacted.  The wild brook trout in Cold Spring Creek are like “canaries in a coal mine”, and their slow demise is a signal that our supply of drinking water (groundwater) is threatened. But rather than heed the warning and address the underlying problem of overuse, two legislators propose to instead shoot the canaries.

Rep. Howe (Rockville) has introduced HF 2711, and Sen. Fischbach (Paynesville) introduced its companion SF 2317.  Both bills would prohibit Cold Spring Creek from being designated as a trout stream.

Link to HF 2711:

Link to SF 2317:

Their thinking appears to be that we can magically remove the problem of “deficit spending” from this aquifer by killing off our early warning system.  This assault on a public resource to make things temporarily easier for one private business is outrageous.  Constituents of these legislators might want to let them know that their approach is both unacceptable and ineffective.  We sincerely hope that the brewery has had no role in these legislator’s attempts to undermine our water and trout stream protection laws.

2.  Hide behind beer drinkers and brewers

These legislators’ second tact is to require the DNR to issue a permanent water appropriation permit to the brewery.  The DNR has bent over backward to buy time for the brewery and city, by issuing temporary permits.  These bills would take advantage of this accommodation and use it against the DNR and the stakeholders they represent.  Since state law prohibits legislation designed to benefit just one individual (“special legislation”), the bills had to be written to cover all brewers.  Here are links to the bills:

HF 2712:

SF 2316:

Tell all your favorite local brewers that you expect them to be an ally in protecting the clean water you rely upon.  Ask them to oppose efforts to undermine groundwater protections for the convenience of a few.

3.  Roll back enlightened water law statewide

The third set of bills seeks to fundamentally undermine water law statewide.  Minnesota Statute, Section 103G.287 reflects the reality that reduced groundwater levels which in turn reduce the flow from natural springs have an adverse impact on trout streams and other surface waters.  HF 2713 and SF 2315 attempt to weaken this law. 

HF 2713:

SF 2315:


Progress of the bills?

As of March 11, 2014 none of these bills had yet been scheduled for a hearing. 


Addressing the problem of unsustainable use

Long term monitoring wells show steadily declining aquifer levels in many areas of the state.  These declines indicate that we have been allowing far too much groundwater to be pumped out.  As the DNR begins the difficult task of working with current and prospective permit holders to restore use to sustainable levels there will be increased attempts to circumvent or undermine sustainable water use laws.  We must remain vigilant.