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Published February 27, 2013, 09:31 AM

Water permit violations not priority for Minnesota DNR

WORTHINGTON, Minn. (AP) — Hundreds of water permit holders in Minnesota are violating the law by using billions of gallons more water than they're allowed, Department of Natural Resources records show.

WORTHINGTON, Minn. (AP) — Hundreds of water permit holders in Minnesota are violating the law by using billions of gallons more water than they're allowed, Department of Natural Resources records show.

The violators include individuals, businesses and even state government agencies, Minnesota Public Radio reported Wednesday. All have state permits that let them take specific amounts of water each year from underground wells, rivers, lakes and wetlands. But many aren't obeying the terms of their permits, and they face few consequences for using too much water.

"There's no doubt that a lot of them are appropriating more water than they're currently authorized," said Dale Homuth, manager of the DNR's conservation assistance and regulations section.

But Homuth said stopping the excessive pumping is not a high priority. He said the agency's top objectives include processing new water permits.

"The number of new permit applications we're dealing with are at record levels the last couple of years," Homuth said. "Every one of those is complicated, controversial, takes a lot of staff time. And we have the same staffing levels we've had for 20 years dealing on these water appropriation permits."

Rep. Jean Wagenius, who chairs the House environment committee, disagrees with that approach. The Minneapolis DFLer said the drought is stretching the state's water resources, so the DNR should give over-pumping equal priority to processing new permits and finding illegal pumping.

MPR said its review of DNR water permit data show the vast majority of the state's more than 7,000 permit holders stay well under their maximum allotments. But others exceed their limits.

The Gerdau Ameristeel plant in Duluth, for example, has taken as much as five times its permit limit of 100 million gallons annually from Lake Superior. In central Minnesota, the Green Lake Nursery has far exceeded its pumping limit from the Redwood River practically every year for two decades. One year it pumped 46.4 million gallons, or 57 times its limit. The Twin Cities suburb of Ramsey consistently exceeds one of its permits, some years using as much as five times the amount allowed to water athletic fields. The Brainerd school district has a permit maximum of 3 million gallons a year, but DNR data snow the district's actual pumping reached nearly 19 million gallons in 2006.

MPR said it contacted several violators, and none remembered any communications from the DNR alerting them that they were taking more water than their permits allowed. The report said most violations appeared to be based on a misunderstanding of permit requirements.

Over-pumping can cause wells to run dry. Metropolitan Council water supply planning manager Ali Elhassan said heavy demand has dramatically dropped water levels in a major aquifer under the Twin Cities by about 40 feet in the last 35 years in some locations.

"We are starting seeing trends that are not sustainable," Elhassan said. "And if we continue business as usual, pumping ground water to meet our growth in the future, we'll start seeing even further adverse impacts into our aquifers."

If the DNR is tolerating over-pumping, it's also collecting higher fees from water permit holders. They generally pay for the water they pump, and when they exceed their limit, they must pay more. The agency collects about $4 million a year from those fees. Homuth said collecting money is a big DNR priority.

"As long as they pay, we're happy," he said.

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