Minnesota’s decreasing aquifer levels are beginning to worry state water managers. Over the last few years, lake and aquifer levels across the state have dropped significantly. Between 2005 and 2011, Pine Tree Lake, Mann Lake, Round Lake, Sunset Lake, and Oneka Lake have all dropped two to three feet. According to state hydrologists, the main culprit is increased groundwater withdrawal, which has been linked to declining lake levels across the northeast metro area.
Historically, the Land of 10,000 Lakes has drawn the majority of its publicly used water from surface water resources. In the 1950’s surface water accounted for approximately 80% of all demand. Today, more than 70 percent comes from groundwater. This dramatic shift has been the result of lower costs associated with extracting groundwater compared to surface water. As the metro populations continued to grow, groundwater withdrawal has outpaced recharge, which has subsequently caused a drop in the water table.
Deb Swackhamer, a professor at the University of Minnesota and a member of the school’s Water Resource Center, claims that Minnesota is following an unsustainable path. In an interview with Stephen Tellier of KSTP CBS News, Swackhamer declares: “Our groundwater is completely invisible, so we don’t think about that at all. We just turn on our tap and go, ‘Oh great. We have great water here.”  Swackhamer goes on to say, “We’re the most water-rich surface water state in the nation, and yet we’re not using our surface water for drinking water and municipal water. We’re using groundwater.”
The problem with using groundwater is the ultimate sustainability of that resource. Natural recharge of groundwater can take hundreds of years as it slowly percolates into the aquifer. Jason Moeckel, a manager with the Division of Ecological and Water Resources at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has echoed Swackhamer’s concern, stating ”We’re the Land of 10,000 Lakes. We have a lot of water. But our lakes and rivers are very much connected to our groundwater, and groundwater is what we use a lot of.” There are a number of side effects associated unsustainable groundwater withdrawal which include subsidence, and reduced surface water levels among other things.
Projects that have been proposed to increase water availability for the Minnesota metro area. So far, all proposed alternatives include drawing more water from the Mississippi River. Jason Moeckel and other state experts see a problem with relying more on a new water source while leaving conservation and reuse out of the equation. “Turning to the Mississippi River to meet water supply needs is a lot more expensive than just conserving the water that we’re already using”, Moeckel argues. Some of these projects will cost tax payers up to $623 million dollars to implement.