The Water Rich Adjust to a New Water Reality

Posted on November 13, 2013 by Andrew Brown

Water management issues have become much more serious in recent years.  Even Minnesota – the Land of 10,000 Lakes – is coping with limited water resources.  Recent state reports have warned a growing number of parts of Minnesota will soon face groundwater shortages, especially during drought periods due to increasing water use and the potential effects of climate change.  

In Minnesota, the responsibility to ensure the State maintains an adequate supply of water resources falls primarily upon the Department of Natural Resources (“DNR”).  Since 1937, the DNR Commissioner has regulated water use through a water appropriations permit program.  In implementing the appropriations program, the DNR Commissioner is granted broad authority to assess cumulative impacts and sustainability.  Although there is no specific definition in state law, the DNR has defined “sustainable water use” as “the use of water to provide for the needs of society, now and in the future, without unacceptable social, economic, or environmental consequences.” 

To manage groundwater conflicts, the Minnesota Legislature in 2010 authorized the DNR to designate “groundwater management areas” and develop water use plans for these designated areas.  The DNR is now in the process of implementing this new law.  Last year, the DNR undertook a process to develop a groundwater strategic plan to designate and implement groundwater management areas.  In kicking off the planning process, the DNR acknowledged that both the Department and water users have traditionally operated under the assumption that water was plentiful and limits were seldom necessary.  The DNR now recognizes, however, that it has the authority to change the permitting system to shift away from such generous assumptions and to make determinations intended to promote sustainability even if those determinations result in the denial of some allocation requests.

The DNR is now seeking input from stakeholders in the development of the state-wide strategic plan.  The DNR has also identified three potential groundwater management areas but the specific boundaries have not been delineated.   In fact, defining the groundwater management boundaries will be one of the toughest issues in implementing the new law, as DNR is weighing whether boundaries should be based on underlying aquifers, distribution of current and future use, watershed boundaries, or even community boundaries.  

As water management issues become more serious, Minnesota’s groundwater management area program presents one potential model for other policymakers and regulators who must tackle these tough issues.