North St. Paul resolute in sticking with groundwater supply

Most people associate North St. Paul with the historic snowman structure at Margaret Street and Highway 36. Lately, however, those who grew up in town have been asserting pride in another local treasure: the city's groundwater supply.

City officials say they have been receiving calls from residents who oppose outside plans to take the city off its groundwater supply and hook it up to surface water through the St. Paul Regional Water Service. Local politicians — including Mayor Mike Kuehn and State Sen. Chuck Wiger, who also grew up on the city's groundwater — agree that the plan's not fair.

At the Feb. 3 city council meeting, council members approved a resolution opposing the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources plan to convert North St. Paul's water supply, as suggested in the recent White Bear Lake lawsuit settlement.

"I want the public to know that we feel we are taking a very significant stand," Mayor Mike Kuehn said at the meeting.

The tension over groundwater conservation methods took hold when the White Bear Lake Restoration Association and the White Bear Lake Homeowners' Association filed a lawsuit against the DNR, alleging that area cities are over-drawing from the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer. They hold the DNR responsible for allowing overuse to result in the lowering of White Bear Lake.

In response, the Metropolitan Council released a report outlining a two-phase conservation plan to convert 13 communities from groundwater to surface water. North St. Paul is listed as one of six communities identified for the first phase, that's estimated to cost $155 million to $230 million. To move forward, the Minnesota Legislature must approve plans for the project by August 2016 and provide funding for the first phase by August 2017, otherwise the settlement becomes void.

Building a defense

In preparation to hold their ground, North St. Paul council members first consulted two experts on engineering and environmental planning, both employed by WSB & Associates, before making their opposition to the plan public at the Dec. 16 council meeting.

Next, they met with Sen. Wiger at a workshop on Jan. 20, to communicate both their concerns and gauge his support. Wiger assured council members that he and his colleagues are interested in pursuing long-term solutions that take alternative causes and solutions into consideration.

"I have said that it's unfair to target six communities," Wiger said, noting there are still too many variables to act with certainty. "We’re waiting to hear additional recommendations."

As outlined in the city's resolution, the city equipped Wiger with a rather extensive list of talking points.

Not only do city officials object to the fact they were not given a voice in the case, but they also take issue with a major flaw in the proposed plan: there's no proven direct correlation between the city's approved well-pumping activity and water levels at White Bear Lake. Furthermore, they cite external factors like climate changes and natural lake cycles as other probable causes.

In terms of North St. Paul's groundwater consumption, the resolution highlights the city's investments in its existing water infrastructure, as recommended by the Metropolitan Council. From a technical standpoint, the resolution states that switching sources could compromise the water taste and odor, damage existing pipes, and increase water rates for residents.

Drawing attention to alternative solutions, the resolution states the option requested by the plaintiff in the lawsuit: lake augmentation of White Bear Lake. At an estimated cost of $50 million, this ranks as the most cost effective and easy-to-implement option.

Standards of fairness made the list as well. Since groundwater sustainability is a far-reaching issue, the resolution states, "There is no equity in limiting focus on the White Bear Lake area or taking steps that impact some communities within this area but not others."

Putting a voice to the issue

City manager Jason Ziemer says North St. Paul may be the first city to finalize any sort of formal position on the issue, but he says other area cities have expressed concerns as well.

"I’m speculating that others are taking a wait-and-see approach," Ziemer said in a phone interview, adding these cities are also likely seeking guidance from their legislatures.

Notably, the city of Shoreview, which is also included in the first phase of the DNR's plan, decided to proceed with plans to enhance its groundwater system. The city will construct an $11 million municipal water treatment plant that the city had approved prior to the settlement.

While North St. Paul isn't straddled with the additional pressure of any pending investments in its groundwater system, Ziemer said council members insist on slowing down the conversation. They are worried that overhauling their city's water system may end up proving ineffective in conserving water levels at White Bear Lake. They agree that water conservation needs to be addressed, just in a more methodical manner.

Asked what sort of impact the city hoped to have by creating a resolution, Ziemer said it formally adds another perspective to the issue.

"You've heard the DNR's voice [and] the voice of property owners around the lake," he said. "I think everybody needs to be at the table talking about solutions and outcomes."

Erin Hinrichs can be reached at 651-748-7814 and ehinrichs@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/EHinrichsNews.

 

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