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DNR creates Straight River management area plan to address groundwater issues

The Straight River is shown here from Highway 71 south of Park Rapids. (Kevin Cederstrom/Enterprise)

As citizens become more concerned about the sustainability of groundwater resources in and around Hubbard County, the DNR has established the Straight River Groundwater Management Area (SRGMA) to ensure local resources won’t be depleted entirely or contaminated.  SRGMA is one of three areas in the state to undergo a five-year plan devised by the agency and 27 stakeholders from private industry, local government and the public.  “Groundwater use has been increasing in the Straight River area, which increases the risk of overuse and in some places contamination of this important natural resource,” the draft plan’s preamble states.

 “The DNR has identified the Straight River area in portions of Clearwater, Becker, Hubbard and Wadena Counties as a place where use of groundwater may not be sustainable,” the preamble notes.  The draft plan indicates 84 percent of the area’s groundwater is used for agricultural irrigation, and that is of concern to many citizens. Statewide, Minnesota uses 34 percent of its groundwater on agriculture, said Brian Stenquist, DNR Division of Ecological and Water Resources.  He said another 53 percent of groundwater goes for use in municipal supply systems.

 The DNR says there are challenges in areas where groundwater use is high, like Hubbard County.  Part of the study will entail seeing how long it takes groundwater supplies to recover from heavy use. Winters like this past year didn’t see enough snowfall to adequately “recharge” the water table, DNR Fisheries chief Doug Kingsley said.  Irrigated acreage in the management area has risen from 300,000 acres to 500,000+ acres, Stenquist said. Irrigation uses 200 to 250 billion gallons of water annually, he added.  In the state, in 2014 there were 700 water use applications. In 2015, 600 permit applications have been submitted to date, so that will surpass last year’s usage.  Potato grower RDO has been working diligently on crop rotation and other means to cut its water use, said company representative Nick David in a previous forum. It isn’t primarily growing potatoes, which have high water demands, David said.  

The DNR, which is responsible for permitting groundwater use and approving water supply plans, is scrutinizing future water appropriations permits to meet sustainability mandates that have been put into statutes.  Water permits must be issued for any uses of more than 1 million gallons per year. Stenquist said that is an old Minnesota law that legislators may scrutinize next session.  Partnerships with local agencies, such as the Soil and Water Conservation District, will help fine-tune and localize the conservation plan.  Water quality is another area of concerns. Much publicity in Park Rapids has centered on the concentrations of nitrates from fertilizers and large potato growers like RDO are cutting back the amount of nitrates used on crops.  Kingsley said there are other concerns.  “We have seen an increasing trend in water temperatures,” he said. The Straight River is considered a “cold water stream” in which groundwater supports the various organisms. If water gets too warm, it kills fish.  The Park Rapids Fisheries office has monitored water temps in the Straight River since 1983, Kingsley said. That’s where he got the warming trend.  The DNR wants to improve monitoring of “groundwater levels, basin water levels, stream flows, climate, groundwater associated biological communities and water use.”  

The goal is to make the use of groundwater sustainable in a way that won’t harm ecosystems, water quality or the “ability of present and future generations to meet their needs.”  The second objective stipulates that the use of groundwater “must be reasonable, efficient and complies with water conservation requirements.”  The third objective mandates that “groundwater use (in the management area) must not degrade water quality” by moving known contaminants and by insisting on compliance with all laws.  Fourth, groundwater use in the management area “must not create unresolved interferences or water use conflicts.”  Lastly, “all groundwater users in the (management area) must have permits. The DNR will ensure that permitted volumes reflect actual use that actual use does not exceed permitted volumes.”  There is some confusion about the deadline for submitting public comments, as the PUC website indicates Sept. 14 and other sources say it’s the 24th. The Enterprise could not confirm either date by press time. It might be best to meet the earlier deadline, just in case.   

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture will address the use and management of pesticides and nitrates from fertilizers including storage, handling and cleanup of contaminated facilities, said Luke Stuewe of the MDA.  The DNR hopes, in the plan, to stimulate innovation as the agency looks at things differently.  Newly designed irrigation systems are resulting in less evapotranspiration.  The DNR wants to seal old wells so they cannot be conduits for contamination.  But the overall consensus of DNR personnel was that “compliance is very good in this area.”  And DNR hydrologist Darrin Hoverson said, it will be easy to spot violators via aerial photography.  To date nothing has been found to damage human health or cause ecological concerns.  “When applied appropriately and according to manufacturer’s instructions, pesticides aren’t harmful,” he said.  

“Our drinking water is OK,” said one DNR representative. “Our air is safe to breathe.”