ST. PAUL — Could Minnesota water end up in the thirsty southwestern United States?
In what is believed to be a first for Minnesota, the state has received a request from a small Lakeville railroad company asking what it would take for them to drill two wells in Dakota County and pull out up to 500 million gallons of groundwater a year. The water would then be shipped via rail to communities near the Colorado River in the arid Southwest.
“This request represents a new kind of water use in the State of Minnesota” Georg Fischer, the county’s environmental resources director, said in an email this week to the Dakota County Board of Commissioners.
Empire Building Investments, the real estate arm of Lakeville-based Progressive Rail, submitted an application for a preliminary well assessment to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources this month proposing to build the wells on 6.2 acres the railroad owns north of Randolph.
The assessment is required before someone drills a well that would withdraw more than 1 million gallons of water a year and meant to provide information to a potential water use permit applicant to “help inform their decisions” before they purchase equipment and dig a well, said Jason Moeckel, a manager in the DNR’s ecological and water resources division.
“This is a unique request, and I want to emphasize that we are still reviewing the request,” Moeckel said this week. “We have identified a number of issues that would need to be considered.”
The application indicates that two wells would be drilled to pump up to 500 million gallons of water a year, or about 3,000 gallons per minute within the Cannon River Watershed. The applicant has requested to use the Mount Simon Aquifer, the deepest aquifer in Dakota County.
The project would more than double the amount of water currently being extracted in the area right now, according to Fischer. The largest impact would likely be to the approximately 140 private drinking water wells in a 2-mile radius, with additional potential impacts to the 27 irrigation wells, he added.
Fischer said the DNR has confirmed that the venture would work with Water Train, a company currently providing water to municipal and government agencies in Colorado, Utah and Arizona. The two wells currently are the only wells the company is considering in Minnesota, he added.
Moeckel said the DNR has identified a “number of issues” with the request and that the agency is reviewing several state statutes relating to water use.
Among them, he said, state statute — passed as part of the 1989 Groundwater Protection Act — puts restrictions on new applications to use the Mount Simon aquifer within the seven-county metropolitan area. The restrictions require that the water must be used for drinking within a home or a business and cannot be used for irrigation or industrial processing.
The proposed volume of water would also trigger a mandatory environmental assessment worksheet. Water permits cannot be issued until an EAW is completed.
Dave Fellon, who owns Progressive Rail, is listed as the applicant. Reached by phone this week, Fellon said he could not comment on the proposal and that he would have someone who could return the call. No one did.
A request sent to Water Train on Thursday, Oct. 31, seeking comment was not immediately returned.
Dakota County Commissioner Joe Atkins said he has “serious concerns” about sending the county’s groundwater to the southwestern U.S. He noted how a recent research study presented to the County Board in September shows aquifer drawdown exceeding 50 percent of availability by 2040 in areas of Inver Grove, Eagan, Apple Valley and some townships.
“My line with this is they can have all the snow from my driveway that they want in March, but I’m not so interested in them taking our water,” he said.
Starting in the 1980s, small, privately owned rail lines like Progressive Rail took off when the federal government deregulated the railroad industry and the largest railroads were able to sell off undesirable or abandoned rail lines.
In the mid-1990s, after more than decade, Fellon persuaded Canadian Pacific Railway to sell him a stretch of track in Lakeville that connects the city’s largest industrial park to a national rail line.
City officials would later credit Fellon with contributing to the revitalization of Airlake Industrial Park. In 2009, Fellon came under fire from Lakeville residents and city officials who were concerned with empty train cars being parked near their homes. At the time, Fellon said the empty cars were a national problem caused by the Great Recession, resulting in hundreds of thousands of rail cars sitting unused.