Action alert: Oppose bills that would undermine aquifers and the MN Environmental Rights Act

by Trevor Russell

As the population around White Bear Lake grows, we need to find sustainable solutions for groundwater use. Take action today using the form below. (Photo credit: Tony Webster)

Legislators have introduced a pair of bills in the House (House File 3880) and Senate (Senate File 3055) that could undermine local aquifer levels and undercut one of Minnesota's bedrock environmental laws: the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act.

Background: White Bear Lake & Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer

FMR has long been concerned about the unsustainable pumping of groundwater in fast-growing northeast suburban communities around White Bear Lake. 

This excessive groundwater pumping has depleted water levels in the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer and contributed to an at-times dramatic reduction in water levels in White Bear Lake.

Rather than advance more sustainable solutions for groundwater use in the area, these bills instead instruct the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to grant municipal groundwater withdrawal permits — while simultaneously exempting those decisions from legal challenges under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA).The White Bear Press highlighted several of our concerns in a recent story

Problem one: automatic permit approval

The legislation effectively instructs the DNR to approve any new or expanded municipal groundwater withdrawal permit (at the amount applied for) within a 5-mile radius of White Bear Lake. This fundamentally undermines the DNR's responsibility to assess the potential impacts of new or expanded groundwater withdrawals on the aquifer and White Bear Lake itself.

Problem two: undermining MERA

MERA is a decades-old law designed to allow Minnesotans a legal pathway to protect our natural resources from destruction. For example, if a state agency issues a permit or rule that is inadequate to protect our natural resources, Minnesotans can challenge the state agency under MERA, and courts can require more protective permits and rules. By providing citizens the power to hold polluters accountable, MERA gives each of us the opportunity and responsibility to protect our treasured environment and resources.

These bills undermine MERA by altering Minnesota Statutes 2020, section 116B.10 to exempt the state from any MERA legal challenges associated with groundwater withdrawal permits in the White Bear Lake area until January 2041.

This not only fails to solve the problem of groundwater appropriation in the North and East metro area, but would instead allow permits to continue for 20 years without the ability to challenge them in court.

Likewise, these bills set a dangerous precedent. Exempting one family of environmental decisions from MERA invites industry advocates to pursue similar MERA exemptions for highly controversial projects (mining, pipelines and feedlot permits come to mind), fundamentally altering environmental accountability in Minnesota.

The section we support

The bill does include one positive provision that FMR strongly supports. It instructs DNR, in cooperation with the Minnesota Department of Health, the Metropolitan Council and representatives of east metropolitan area municipalities, to explore available options for supplying east metropolitan area communities with safe drinking water in a manner that allows municipal growth while simultaneously ensuring the sustainability and quality of the state's water resources in and around White Bear Lake and neighboring aquifers.

The agency would be required to submit a report to the Legislature by October 2021. If any portion of this legislation advances, we hope it includes only this section.

Bill status as of March 14, 2022

Take action

Please take a moment to let your legislators know you oppose HF 3880 and SF 3055. We must not allow any legislation that undermines MERA and further compromises already at-risk aquifer levels in the White Bear Lake area to become law this session.

You can help!

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Keep up to date

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Check out the full slate of FMR's legislative priorities.