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Met Council forum raises water supply concerns

A Metropolitan Council discussion last week concluded that a one-size-fits-all approach is not feasible to address water supply issues across the entire Twin Cities area.

Representatives from across the area, including Woodbury, Stillwater, Bloomington and Hugo, attended a forum Thursday at the Maplewood Community Center where they outlined water supply concerns.

Additionally, Woodbury engineers signed on with the City Engineers Association of Minnesota to address issues regarding lack of participation in the planning process that may be leading to differing views on the solution to fix a problem future generations will face.

Two-thirds of drinking water in the metro area comes from groundwater and the Prairie du-Chien aquifer, while one-third is surface or river water.

Metropolitan Council tools point to an already declining trend in aquifer levels — by one foot per year in some areas — said Keith Buttleman, assistant general manager for environmental quality assurance.

“There are numerous lakes and wetlands and streams that are being reduced in their levels,” he said,  adding that they cannot “support trout and other species throughout the metro area.”

Officials agree the current approach is lacking sustainability, especially with growth projections that would bring the seven-county population number to a total of 3.5 million by 2040.

But not everyone is in agreement that expensive solutions like a regional treatment plant should be looked at first before examining the data further and developing creative solutions to conserve and recharge the aquifer.

While the ultimate goal is to preserve groundwater as much as possible, it’s challenging to manage such a large group of metro area cities with varying hydrological states and different needs.

Officials from Maplewood, who get drinking water from the St. Paul surface water distribution system, say their aging infrastructure could benefit from a new regional system.

But Woodbury, which gets its water from the Prairie duChien-Jordan aquifer and pumps about 2.4 billion gallons of water a year, says a regional treatment plant and a switch to Mississippi River water would cost $100 million, passing it on to homeowners and businesses.

“The solution is going to be multifaceted, I don’t think it’s an easy solution,” Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens said. “Cities have concerns with all of the agencies that already regulate water.”

The Metropolitan Council leads water supply planning, but the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Health, the Pollution Control Agency, watershed districts all over the state and cities and counties all regulate water for drinking, irrigation and industrial uses.

“It would be nice to see some streamlining in the area of water regulation,” Stephens said.

She suggests creating sub-regional groups, as opposed to one large group of municipalities that are not facing the same issues.

Woodbury and the east metro are unique because many of the communities are still growing and developing. Additionally, the high volume of pumping to clean up 3M dump sites comes from this area as well.

“The actual implementation and policy should come from the sub-groups,” Stephens said.

Various government officials told the Metropolitan Council last week that they need financial help, whether it’s to implement new policies to conserve and recharge groundwater or to build an entirely new system.

“There is potential here and often times we get stuck in the status quo,” said Patricia Nauman, executive director at Metro Cities. “The Met Council’s role here is to convene and collaborate, provide cities with factual information and not to start supplying the water but really to help on the collaborative function.”

Attendees also suggested a one-stop shop for all data and policies implemented at various metro area cities. The City Engineers Association of Minnesota is asking for an inclusive process, according to a letter the organization sent to the Met Council.

The current water supply plan assumes a worst-case scenario and lacks a streamlined process that taps into the cities’ knowledge, the letter stated. Planners still have years before aquifers are in complete crisis mode, so there is still time to come up with creative solutions.

“We think that some of the agencies are drawing conclusions without having gathered all the data that’s available,” said Woodbury Public Works Director Klayton Eckles, a member of the City Engineers Association of Minnesota. “The local governments have lots and lots of data that’s available and we really haven’t been part of the process.”

Buttleman said so far assumptions are broad and based on raw data and water use per capita. The Met Council plans to do considerable refinement at a much finer grain level than those broad projections.

Buttleman recognized local government concerns and said the metro area has multiple sources for water including rivers and aquifers.

“To be concerned about a single scheme for the entire metro area does not make a lot of sense at the moment, may never make sense,” he said, adding, “Some combination of those sources is most likely going to be the ultimate solution for the metro area.”