League of Women Voters Park Rapids Area hosted two speakers Oct. 24 about the challenges and importance of maintaining a healthy groundwater supply.

Dr. George Kraft, a professor of water resources at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, shared examples from his state’s history of addressing groundwater issues.

Darrin Hoverson, the local area hydrologist with the Minnesota Department of Resources, explained how his department is studying and monitoring groundwater quality in the Straight River Groundwater Management Area (GMA) and the larger Pineland Sands geographic study area.

Kraft pointed out that throughout much of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, groundwater supplies a high percentage of the water in streams, while direct runoff flows through most of the Midwest. He explained the groundwater cycle, in which water filters through layers of soil to the water table, then flows into nearby lakes and streams, and how pollution and pumping can affect the quality and quantity of water available.

Kraft told how increasing numbers of high-capacity wells were permitted in the Central Sands area of Wisconsin, mostly for use in irrigated agriculture. At the same time, stream and lake water levels dropped to unprecedented levels, and in some cases completely dried up, during the period of approximately 2004-15 that Kraft called “the Big Dry.”

Irrigation also affected nitrogen levels in the soil, he said, with some types of crops – notably potatoes and sweet corn – allowing more nitrates to leach into the groundwater than others.

He also discussed political controversy in Wisconsin over whether the state DNR has authority to protect lakes, streams and wetlands from excessive pumping.

Reasons why his state does not do a better job of protecting its waters, Kraft said, included denial, techno-fixes that do not work, calls for further study that kick the can down the road, conflict between agricultural economy and stream-centered economies such as tourism and outdoor recreation, and a political power differential dominated by pro-agriculture lobbyists.

Describing what a Wisconsin journalist dubbed the “war over water in the land of plenty,” Kraft cited “sneaky” legislation, a propaganda campaign including a “factbook” full of false claims, a decision by a Republican attorney general that nullified a court decision, withdrawal of funding from groundwater studies and a 2017 legislative act that Kraft prompted some people to ask, “Did we just privatize our groundwater?”

Act 10, he said, granted pumpers high-capacity well approvals that couldn’t be altered and that they could be bought and sold with the land. “Well approvals are virtually automatic,” said Kraft.

“I truly feel that we can do a substantial amount of pumping here, and get better crop production here, without doing too much harm on lakes and streams,” said Kraft. “But it can’t be infinite. You can’t let everybody take all the water they want. Most people on lakes and streams, I think, if you’re talking you’re going to take three or four or five inches of water level here, they’re going to shrug their shoulders. But if you start talking about three or four or five feet, now were upset.”

Kraft concluded, “We need to get to a standard and allocate water in our state.”

Brighter picture in Minnesota

Hoverson noted that we’re fortunate in this part of Minnesota to have abundant water resources.

“The reality in Wisconsin seems to be pretty dire,” Hoverson said. “We don’t want to see that happen in Minnesota.”

He discussed the aquifer tests, groundwater modeling and monitoring his department is doing, especially in the Straight River GMA.

“We’ve been collecting data for so long,” he said. “We want to be able to put that into a model … to understand it how we’re stressing those systems, and use again the data that we’re collecting to verify what’s going on there. It’s going to help us determine thresholds for negative impacts, any number of things.”

The DNR is also involved in designing water supply plans, Hoverson noted. For example, the City of Park Rapids reduced its annual water use by 100 million gallons in five years – which, besides saving water as a resource, also saves the cost of treating that amount of water.

But he acknowledged that demand for water is increasing.

“It’s pretty clear the trends are,” he said. “We’re using more water; we have more irrigated land. How is that affecting our streams?”

Hoverson explained that in Minnesota, four state agencies have roles in water resource management. The DNR addresses water availability and ecological resources; the Department of Agriculture deals with fertilizers and pesticides; the Pollution Control Agencies handles industrial contamination; and the Department of Health focuses on drinking water.

Tools that he said they are using to determine whether water uses are allowable include a geological atlas recently completed in Becker, Cass and Hubbard counties.

“It’s got an enormous amount of information about the geology of this area,” said Hoverson – information “that’s really valuable for the DNR to understand how to address water availability.”

He called Minnesota “the envy of many, many states in the amount of monitoring we have on our landscape. We have more DNR observation wells on this landscape than any state that I’m familiar with. We have stream gauging and lake and wetland water level monitoring across this area.”

He added that the Straight River GMA has the highest density of monitoring in the state. “If we can’t figure it out here, how are they going to figure it out in those other places?”

Hoverson said test well data helps them understand how much water is being used, whether it’s being overused and where that overuse is taking place. Preliminary assessments can anticipate problems even before a user invests in building a well.

The DNR is also working to understand better how to recharge groundwater, determine allowable thresholds for negative impacts, balance the water needs of agriculture and stream users, and respond to changes in the area’s water needs.

He said the next Straight River GMA meeting will be sometime in January.