Questions About the Northeast Metro Water Supply Plan

White Bear Lake, photo via MPR news

White Bear Lake. Photo via MPR news

In the land of 10,000 lakes, we have a water shortage.  According to the Metropolitan Council:

“With more than 70 percent of the region’s water supply coming out of the ground, we are mining our groundwater and sending it downstream at the expense of our water supply, natural amenities, quality of life and economy. It’s a practice that is neither practical nor sustainable, as we can attest from the example of White Bear Lake,” said the Council’s Water Supply Planning Manager Ali Elhassan.

This is a particular problem in the northeast metro.  White Bear Lake is looking less like a lake all the time.  The Met Council has released a report with a few solutions to this issue, all which involve relying more on surface water (rivers) and less on groundwater.  The proposed solutions range in price from $155 million to over $600 million.  The options are myriad, but all involve long pipes to existing or new water treatment plants that use water from the Mississippi River.  Options for areas served vary, but the study area includes communities totaling 157,823 people in 2010 (208,580 projected in 2040).

However, the report seems insufficient to me. It lacks answers to lots of important questions that members of the Metropolitan Council (and residents of the region) should be asking. Here are a few I came up with as I was reading:

  1. Where is the conservation alternative?  The cost and feasibility of  reducing water use are not analyzed as part of the report.  Building nothing and simply asking/incentivizing/requiring people to use less may be the cheapest option.  According to the report, water use in 2010 was 92 gallons per person, per day in these communities. The ratio of peak day demand to average day demand ranges from 1.7:1 in Forest Lake to 5.9:1 in Lexington.  The report hints that this is “mainly attributed to irrigation and outdoor water use needs”.  Sprinkling lawns in other words.  Many options exist for conserving (potable) water – from retrofitting toilets, sinks and showers, to using captured rainwater to irrigate, to simply paying people to remove lawns and replacing them with low-water alternatives.  For the cost of the alternatives to serve all northeast communities with new water supply (~$600 million), you could pay every household over $1,400 to remove lawn, and keep paying them $40 every year after that.  Without an analysis of conservation alternatives, this report seems inadequate.
  2. What is water being used for in these communities?  Is it for industrial processes, mostly flushing toilets/running showers, or primarily watering lawns?  The answer to this question might help identify other options for conservation, and help determine how cost-effective they might be.  Currently the report reads as if the Met Council’s only objective is to supply as much water as these communities desire, regardless of where it’s going or being used for, or whether that rate of use is sustainability (financially or physically).
  3. What is the capacity for water rates to cover new costs?  By my estimation, the average annual cost for water service in these communities is $171 per household.  If all of this revenue was put towards paying off the $600 million project, it would take 62 years to pay back (assuming no interest).  If annual water rates were raised by $100 per household, it would take 106 years to be paid off.  If the cost of these improvements are spread across the whole region, Met Council members should demand a much more comprehensive analysis, not just of cost to communities, but how communities vary in water usage and peak demand. (The report notes an analysis of rate impacts to communities is underway, and will be presented in fall of 2014).
  4. Related to #1 and #3, is water valued properly?  If a family of four can have all it’s annual water needs (65,000 gallons, estimates the report) delivered for $171, perhaps there is little incentive for conservation.  If you’re living in Forest Lake (part of the study area), you’re probably spending over $15,000 per year on transportation.  A really affordable mobile phone plan will cost you around $250 annually.  I think we all probably agree that water delivery is viewed as a basic function of government and should be cheap and accessible to all.  But people do respond to price signals.  Water in this part of the metro looks pretty cheap on a per-gallon basis when compared to systems across the country.  Perhaps there are creative ways to price potable water being used for non-essential purposes.
  5. Why are we flushing so much usable water into the river?  When I went to a ThriveMSP event last year, one of the water supply experts said that we flush about as much treated wastewater into the Mississippi every day as we use in our drinking water system.  If the problem is really that we’re “mining groundwater and sending it downstream”, why not re-infiltrate that water instead of just doing more flushing?  There may be lots of technical reasons why this won’t work, but the water experts at the event seemed to think it might be an option.
  6. How will the shape of future growth help solve or exacerbate this problem?  These communities are designated “Suburban” through “Diversified Rural”, according to ThriveMSP 2040.  This means planned densities from 5 units per acre to 4 units per 40 acres.  This type of development could mean a lot of turf grass.  Local governments can encourage/require new developments, through their zoning codes and development review processes, to protect groundwater recharge areas, infiltrate stormwater on-site or capture it for irrigation, and use low-water alternatives to turf grass.  If development approaches remain water-intensive, growth in these areas could mean more and bigger pipeline projects in the future.  The Met Council should be looking closely at how projected growth in these communities will impact groundwater resources, and how their planning authority can be used to shape it.

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13 Responses to Questions About the Northeast Metro Water Supply Plan

  1. Janne Flisrand
    Janne July 28, 2014 at 6:11 am #

    This is an incredibly important post. Thank you for bringing some sense to this conversation.

  2. Edward July 28, 2014 at 8:58 am #

    Excellent post! Thank you.

  3. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke July 28, 2014 at 10:40 am #

    Great questions. I wish I had the answers. Water is proof that everything is connected.

  4. Alex July 28, 2014 at 10:52 am #

    Do you know if there’s a way for the wider metro population to comment on the report? The website says it will be reviewed by “local stakeholders”, which I’m guessing means hearings as part of NE metro local council meetings at best. The site does not list contact info for the responsible staff. The Met Council seems eager to live up to its reputation for being undemocratic. (To be fair, their Contact Us page lists a Public Comment phone line: http://www.metrocouncil.org/About-Us/Contact-Us-%281%29.aspx)

  5. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nathaniel July 28, 2014 at 11:27 am #

    Great post.

    Knowing people who live in the area, with large lawns, I cringed when I read: “The report hints that this is “mainly attributed to irrigation and outdoor water use needs”.

  6. James Warden
    JamesWarden July 28, 2014 at 11:33 am #

    I interviewed people about this report last week for Finance & Commerce, and some of the stuff in my notebook addressed the conservation issues but didn’t make it into the story. I’m just repeating what I was told, but here you go:

    The consensus among those I talked to was that conservation is part of the solution but not sufficient on its own. Trevor Russell, watershed program director for the Friends of the Mississippi River, sees the depletion of aquifers as the primary problem. Transitioning communities from groundwater to surface water is the best way to keep those aquifers from drying up, he said. Cities would use only about 2 percent of the river’s flow and the bulk of that would be returned as wastewater.

    The friends support a strategy called conjunctive use that would incorporate conservation and water reuse. But the “lion’s share” of the plan (Russell’s words) would involve relying on the Mississippi for the primary water supply. If the river had a dry year or was contaminated by some type of disaster, communities could then use existing well systems as a backup. However, relying primarily on river water would allow aquifers to recharge.

    Unlike the friends, Greg McNeely, chairman of the White Bear Lake Restoration Association, wants to see an augmentation approach that would pump water into the lake via a chain of lakes. But he, too, thinks conservation isn’t going to be sufficient to raise lake levels.

    I should also note that there are still several pieces of the report still outstanding. This particular piece was focused primarily on cost and feasibility. You’ll notice the impact and evaluation estimates in the report all say “In Progress.” More information should be available with subsequent reports.

    • Brendon Slotterback
      Brendon Slotterback July 28, 2014 at 9:12 pm #

      Thanks very much for the context James. The experts probably do know better whether conservation can contribute, but why not then quantify it? Conservation takes funds, just like building new infrastructure. I know and respect Trevor, but it seems irresponsible of Met Council to leave the assessment of conservations potential impact to the advocates. I didn’t see anything in the report that said they were still working on a conservation assessment, but I may have missed it.

  7. Eric Anondson
    Eric Anondson July 28, 2014 at 1:23 pm #

    Now that we see we allowed far too much unsustainable development in the sector of the metro region due to the way the land use is depleting water, what are we doing to only allow development in this region that doesn’t waste future water? Why haven’t we ceased all development here and routed development in places we can supply with water?

  8. Caddy K July 28, 2014 at 8:28 pm #

    Great post!!

    Conservation could probably solve this problem. It’s time to make this transition and have it become the new normal from suburban homes to large urban apartments.

    It would mean

    Using drinking water only for bathing, washing and drinking.
    Grey water systems and rainwater capture for flushing and watering.
    These systems are pretty easy and inexpensive to install. In areas where this has been done average use has been brought down to around 8 gallons a day from 75-100 gallons.

    Rainwater adds up fast
    1500 square feet of roof area x 15 inches of rain x 0.623 = 14,017 gallons (http://cals.arizona.edu/cochise/waterwise/waterharvest.html)
    Already this year we have had almost double that amount.
    So there is about 30,000 gallons per home being untapped that could work for watering and flushing, and probably laundry.

    Also -Capture storm drain water and send it back to the lake through a wetland marsh natural filtration system.
    -Perhaps instead of paying people to remove lawns there should be a progressive lawn tax that increases and lawns expand.

    This is really how it should be done everywhere. It is shocking to me how much water we waste as a region. It is also shocking how the Met is planning to fix this!

    Perhaps a moratorium on new development in the area should be considered until the problem has been mitigated.

    I saw a septic system on this old house that took all household waste water and had drinking water come out the other end. I do not know the price point on this.

    Another important step is having an elected met council. Presently the met council is still on the sprawl binge and have been since they started. There are several other good posts on here about problems with met council planning and they continue to levy high fees and taxes on the inner city to pay for sewer, water and road service expansion to suburbs. It is worthy to note, the met council has no counterpart any where in the USA according to the met council they have “never been copied” Hmm
    Perhaps met council reform deserves and entire post . . .

  9. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell July 29, 2014 at 4:09 am #

    Great post Brendon. Nearly everyone I’ve talked to about this including strong conservationists has said that conservation alone will not solve the current problem. However, significant conservation along with other measures such as reducing how much paved/built surface we have that prevents rainfall from percolating to acquirers (and sends much of it to the Mississippi) could make augmentation unecessary.

    I think as you pointed out, someone needs to quantify what degree of conservation efforts will result in what impact on aquifers and lake levels.

    Any way you look at it I do think that our current pattern of large expanses of grass that requires irrigation is not a workable plan and we’ll certainly need to change it.

    Chart here: https://streets.mn/2014/01/10/water/

  10. Presley July 29, 2014 at 10:17 am #

    A concentrated campaign to change lawn care behavior seems like a good strategy on several fronts. It would not only address water use issues, but also issues of nitrogen and pesticide contamination. Preserving the aquifer will do us little good if its contaminated by nitrates and pesticide residue.

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