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Water quantity issues rising on the conservation agenda

Minnesota takes pride in its ample water resources, but a string of drier-than-normal summers has put water quantity on the agenda for many in the state's conservation community. The area's water resources are enjoyed by the crew of his pontoon boat recently photographed while plying the waters of Lake Andrew in Kandiyohi County. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

REDWOOD FALLS -- Water quality has long been the focus for conservation efforts in Minnesota, but a string of drier-than-normal summers is pushing water quantity issues to the forefront as well.

The Minnesota River Board took them on in Redwood Falls on July 27, when speakers addressed water quantity issues ranging from population growth in the metropolitan area to what's being done in the desert Southwest, where water conservation practices are mandatory.

The Metropolitan Council is working hard to promote voluntary water conservation practices by the 2.8 million people now served by water utilities in the state's urban core, according to Sara Smith, environmental planner with the Council.

Smith said projections show the metropolitan area adding 750,000 people by 2030. There are the water resources to handle the added population, "but it's not always where it is needed to be,'' she said.

Most of the population growth is projected in the outer ring of suburbs, which are dependent on groundwater sources. There will be a need to share ground and surface water resources among metropolitan communities, and to be more effective at conserving water, she said.

Two-thirds of metropolitan communities can impose restrictions on the hours when outdoor watering is allowed.

The restricted watering hours are effective at reducing the peak demand on the water distribution infrastructure. For overall water consumption, "we are not seeing it is having that much of an impact,'' she said.

Rural areas have water quantity issues to address as well. Portions of Southwest and western Minnesota have limited groundwater resources. Regional systems pipe water to many farms and small communities.

The Lewis and Clark Water Project plans to import water from the Missouri River to meet water needs in Worthington and other areas of Minnesota's southwest corner.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is seeking LCCMR funding to study the use of groundwater in the Belgrade to Brooten "Bonanza Valley'' area, long-famed for its seemingly ample groundwater resources.

Precipitation in the area has been below normal for several years, while it is believed that irrigation for agriculture has been on the increase. Some domestic well users had experienced interference problems from irrigation wells.

Laurel Reeves, a hydrologist with the DNR's Division of Waters, when contacted by the Tribune said the interference problems have been resolved, but they called attention to the importance of monitoring groundwater resources. A USGS survey completed roughly two decades ago warned that increasing demands for irrigation could have impacts on rivers and wetlands in the Bonanza Valley.

Reeves said the DNR is hoping that funding will allow for a pilot program to monitor the water usage and availability in the Bonanza Valley and help avoid future problems.

It's too late in much of Arizona, where a growth-based economy has put water usage on a collision course with the resources available, according to Val Little, director of the Water Conservation Alliance of Southern Arizona. She told her Minnesota hosts about a wide range of mandated water conservation practices being implemented in the state, and scoffed when asked about fishing and other water-based recreational opportunities in the state. Some of the state's largest rivers are no longer free-flowing, she pointed out.

Little predicts that in the not too distant future, the only water used for outdoor watering in Arizona will be gray water; water treated by wastewater systems will be returned directly to domestic uses; and that when the ownership of older homes is transferred, they will be required to be retrofitted to meet new and more stringent water conservation requirements.

Could that happen here?

More than one audience member offered the opinion that after years of draining wetlands and treating water as a problem rather than a resource, the tables could be turned on us, too.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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