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Sustainable water use: First-ever Straight River Groundwater Management Area plan nears completion

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Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr visited Park Rapids Tuesday to answer questions from the project advisory team and the public about the Straight River Groundwater Management Area plan. (Shannon Geisen / Enterprise)3 / 3

The Straight River Groundwater Management Area (GWMA) is one of three ongoing pilot projects in Minnesota.

A project advisory team met Tuesday to discuss final revisions to a proposed management plan.

The team has been working for two years to draft the 76-page, five-year plan, which aims to guide the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in handling the appropriation and long-term, sustainable use of groundwater within the Straight River GWMA.

Minnesota DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr also attended the meeting to answer questions.

If Landwehr approves the plan, the next phase is implementation.

The DNR identified Straight River GWMA as an "area of specific concern where groundwater resources are at risk of overuse and degraded quality."

According to the plan, the area experienced "substantial growth" in permitted water use – 85 percent in the last 25 years. Statewide, water use increased 35 percent over the same period.

Agricultural irrigation is the predominate use (84 percent) within the Straight River GWMA. Industrial processing accounts for 11 percent of water use, followed by municipal/public water supply (3 percent), golf course irrigation (2 percent). The latest figures are from 2013.

Crop irrigation has increased by an average of 77 million gallons of water per year since 1988.

As of December 2014, there were 252 active water appropriation permits on file.

Public water supply systems serving more than 1,000 people must have a water supply plan approved by the DNR. In the Straight River GWMA, the city of Park Rapids is the only city required to have this plan. The city’s new, 10-year water supply plan will be due in 2017.

The boundaries, flora and fauna

The state legislature created groundwater management areas as a tool for the DNR to monitor and protect groundwater resources.

The other two management areas being developed are in the North and East Metro and Bonanza Valley.

The Straight River GWMA stretches across 236,142 acres, or 369 square miles.

It primarily encompasses the Crow Wing River watershed. The area also includes a small part of Many Point Lake and Round Lake sub-watersheds.

The primary river, Straight River, is a designated trout stream.

Analyses have shown the shallow groundwater, lakes, streams, rivers and wetlands in this area are "interconnected" and "heavily dependent" on precipitation for replenishment.

A majority of the state’s rare orchid flora and other "special concern" plants and animals – such as, the common loon, trumpeter swan, Virginia rail and swamp sparrow – are found in the Straight River headwaters.

The Fish Hook River boasts an "assemblage of rare species" as well, namely the black sandshell mussel, least darter fish and bald eagle.

The final review

The stated objective of the Straight River management plan is that groundwater use "must be sustainable and therefore will not harm ecosystems, water quality or the ability of present and future generations to meet their needs."

"Our job in this whole process is to meet goals of sustainability," said Landwehr. "You all have been part of a big experiment. We’ve never done this before."

"We aren’t at a crisis. We can see a crisis, but aren’t there yet," he continued.

Project advisory team (PAT) members and citizens in attendance Tuesday gathered into small groups to reflect on the planning process, share concerns, discuss satisfactory features of the plan and ask questions of Landwehr.

There was general agreement that the planning process had been open and transparent.

A common complaint was presence of agribusiness on the PAT.  By Minnesota Statute, 10 permit holders were required on the 21-member team.

Permit holders on the Straight River PAT were Todd Becker of Becker Farms, Troy

Becker, Alex Bishop, Nick David of R. D. Offutt Company, Kelly Elsner of Elsner Well Drilling Inc., Brian Flynn of ConAgra (Lamb Weston), Gene Maves, Larry Monico, Nate Pike and Steve Traut of Traut Wells Inc.

Other local representatives were Scott Burlingame and Dean Christofferson for the City of Park Rapids, David Collins of the Hubbard Regional Economic Development Commission, Matt Dotta from the Hubbard County Board, Julie Kingsley from the Hubbard County Soil and Water District, Morgan Marcussen of the Park Rapids School District and Charlie Parson of Trout Unlimited - Bemidji.

Landwehr advised people to not get "too hung up" about the makeup of the advisory team since the DNR makes final decisions about sustainable use.

"I disagree with that. Money talks," said Gene Fix, a lifelong area resident and Viet Nam veteran.

Cooperation, funding is key

If the plan is adopted, the DNR would share water quality data and analysis with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Board of Water and Soil Resources.

Management activities in the Straight River GWMA will require coordination between these existing state agencies.

Case in point: Much of groundwater impairment results from phosphorus and nutrient contamination, Landwehr said.

The DNR has no authority over that, but the Minnesota Department of Agriculture does, he explained.

"Nutrient management is the future," he said.

Within the Straight River GWMA, nitrate levels in drinking water have exceeded the health risk limit set by the Minnesota Department of Health. Some private domestic wells and municipal wells have been affected. Nitrates in groundwater can be elevated due to land use practices and fertilizers.

Improved monitoring of groundwater levels, basin water levels, stream flows, and climate are among the DNR’s objectives.

Landwehr mentioned that the DNR would like to have 7,000 observation wells across Minnesota. It currently has 700.

The DNR will also develop sustainability thresholds for aquifers, ecosystems and surface waters in the GWMA to determine limits for appropriation permits.

In addition, the plan calls for the DNR to promote water conservation and improve its capacity to detect unpermitted groundwater use.

Adequate funding from the state legislature will be "key to our success," noted Landwehr. The Division of Ecological and Water Resources is funded entirely from the DNR’s general fund, not from fishing and hunting license sales.

"Water is one thing that ties us all," he said. "It’s precious. We can’t take it for granted."

A new advisory team

If the commissioner accepts and signs the plan, the DNR will form a new stakeholder advisory team to oversee implementation.

Straight River GWMA Project Manager Bob Guthrie, a groundwater appropriation hydrologist stationed in Park Rapids, invited the public to join the new advisory team. It will meet twice per year during the next five years.

Citizens can also contact Guthrie to request information and project updates as the plan is being implemented. He can be reached at 732-8960 or

robert.guthrie@state.mn.us.

The Straight River GWMA management plan will be updated, as needed, to oversee sustainable groundwater use beyond the initial five years of the project.

A downloadable draft copy can be found at

www.dnr.state.mn.us/gwmp/area-sr.

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