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Antidote for polluted water in the Twin Cities worse than the disease?

ST. PAUL — As White Bear Lake dries up like a puddle in the sun and underground water levels drop, who’s to blame?

Along with the usual suspects of suburban lawns and golf courses, a new competitor for water is emerging — companies ordered to pump up and clean polluted groundwater.

According to well permit records from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, state-ordered pollution pumping removed 3.3 billion gallons from Twin Cities-area aquifers in 2012. That’s enough to fill 155 miles of Olympic-sized swimming pools lined up end to end.

In Washington County, the problem is especially acute: The city of Woodbury, with a population of 65,000, pulls about 3 billion gallons a year from the Prairie du Chien Aquifer with its several municipal wells. 3M pumps nearly half as much — about 1.4 billion gallons a year — just to control pollution, and most of that comes from wells in Woodbury.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency orders companies that pollute to pump up and clean the groundwater. It’s necessary, the agency says, to protect public health.

But as aquifer levels drop, officials are asking whether the perceived threat is worth sacrificing billions of gallons of water a year.

“It might be that the antidote is worse than the disease,” said Woodbury city engineer Klay Eckles.

Some are saying it’s time to stop what they call the rivers of wasted water — and invest the money to recycle it.

“It’s a no-brainer to try to reuse that water,” said Sean Hunt, hydrologist with the state Department of Natural Resources.

That’s what is happening in Arden Hills.

The U.S. Army has one of the largest metro wells for cleaning polluted water, pumping up 956 million gallons annually at the former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant. Some of the cleaned water is pumped into a gravel pit, where it sinks down and recharges the aquifer. Some is pumped from existing New Brighton municipal wells, cleaned and sent into the city water system.

Shrinking lake

Water supplies in the eastern Twin Cities area have become an issue with the dramatic shrinkage of White Bear Lake. Over about seven years, the lake and the aquifer under it have dropped by about 6 feet.

A flurry of responses has followed.

The Legislature approved $10 million in 2013 to study and manage groundwater supplies.

Many people engaged in finger-pointing, blaming new housing and commercial development and the watering of lawns and golf courses.

Cities took note. Twelve Washington County communities have signed on to an agreement to study water use. Woodbury raised prices for the heaviest water users, set up four separate teams to encourage water conservation and vowed to limit future use.

Companies have reacted, including 3M, which has cut its water consumption at its metro-area plants by 12 percent over the past 15 years, said Jean Sweeney, vice president for environmental, health, safety and sustainability operations.

But pollution-control pumping removes water at dozens of sites.

“When you add them all up, it’s a bummer,” said DNR hydrologist Paul Putzier. “But it beats the alternative.”

The DNR is concerned with protecting water quality and quantity, but the PCA also is concerned with public health and preventing people from drinking polluted water. Officials from the two agencies say they are coordinating their efforts, but city officials don’t see enough evidence of that.

“There is no coordination, and that is unfortunate,” said Cottage Grove City Administrator Ryan Schroeder. “You end up with a level of hysteria.”

He said it is short-sighted to consider benefits of pollution-control pumping without seeing the impact on the water tables. “The goal of public health is the right goal. But there is no apparent awareness of the impact on the aquifer,” Schroeder said.

Friction between cities and the state is increasing. Recently, Eckles said the DNR has asked Woodbury to operate a new well, No. 18, and two others full-blast for the summer to see if it that affects underground water levels.

It will cost Woodbury about $200,000, including the installation of water-level monitors in a nearby stream and in several private wells.

“I venture to say that we will be more scrutinized than any well in the state,” Eckles said. “Our impression is there is a presumption that we are guilty already.”

Many wells

Pumping to clean up pollution

accounts for 10 percent of all water pumped in Ramsey and Washington counties.

The biggest pumpers include not just 3M and the U.S. Army but also Andersen Windows, Ashland Petroleum, Newport Terminal Corp., Marathon Petroleum and St. Paul Park Refining Co.

What bothers critics is that normally, water is pumped for a purpose — to flush a toilet, water a lawn, supply a factory. No one begrudges 3M for using 1.1 billion gallons a year in its factories — because that water is used to support a business that includes 35,000 U.S. jobs and $31 billion in worldwide sales.

But pollution pumping is different. The water is pumped up, cleaned and usually piped away.

That’s what’s happening in Washington County; 3M pumps water from a well in Woodbury and pipes it about 6 miles to its plant in Cottage Grove. The water is used in various facilities, cleaned and released into the Mississippi River.

The large-scale pumping has forced the aquifers down “like a dimple in the groundwater table,” said Sandeep Burman, manager of the PCA’s site remediation and redevelopment section.

That dimple is causing headaches for Woodbury and Cottage Grove. The cities are projecting big increases in population and feel political pressure ratcheting up to do something to save water. They feel they are getting the blame — wrongly — for the falling water levels.

In Afton, officials blame Woodbury’s fast growth for hurting the aquifers.

“We are worried,” said former Afton Mayor Pat Snyder. “We have already had a well drawdown of

5 feet.”

Woodbury’s Eckles is bothered by the irony.

Woodbury could ban all summertime watering for all lawns and gardens — and still not match the water piped to 3M’s Cottage Grove plant and the Mississippi River.

Last month, Eckles saw an advertisement that made him shake his head.

“It was touting a new product to seal leaky water lines and save water,” Eckles said.

The manufacturer? 3M.

He wasn’t sure how much water might be saved. But he had a hunch it would be a lot less than the 4 million gallons a day pulled up by 3M’s pollution-control pumps.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.