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Published April 24, 2014, 01:48 PM

DNR project studying regional water management in Minn.

The development of a plan to protect and preserve Minnesota’s groundwater supply for the future is being shaped by what’s happening now in the Bonanza Valley area of west-central Minnesota.

By: Carolyn Lange , Forum News Service

BROOTEN, Minn. –– The development of a plan to protect and preserve Minnesota’s groundwater supply for the future is being shaped by what’s happening now in the Bonanza Valley area of west-central Minnesota.

The area, which extends from near Alexandria to Paynesville, has seen a 175 percent increase in the use of groundwater in the last 25 years, in part because of agricultural irrigation.

That compares to a 35 percent increase in groundwater usage statewide in that same time frame.

That has attracted the attention of the Legislature, which has allocated new funds to study the issue and take action that could limit total annual water appropriations within an area to protect ecosystems, water quality and the needs of future generations.

There is a “statutory obligation” to make sure Minnesota’s groundwater supply is sustainable in light of increased usage and threat of contamination, said Brian Stenquist, from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Stenquist made the comments April 23 in Brooten, where an advisory committee and members of the public met in the third of nine meetings to be conducted this year in the Bonanza Valley Groundwater Management Area.

The region is one of three pilot communities the DNR is using as a source of data and ideas to create a strategic plan for implementing ways to create a sustainable groundwater supply while also planning for economic development and growth.

Another groundwater management region is located near Park Rapids, where there has been an 84 percent increase in the use of groundwater in the past couple decades, and another region is in the metro area.

“This is a wonderful process we’re engaged in. It’s a new process,” said Mark Hauk, project manager with DNR. “We’re excited to start building these strategies.”

Gathering input from a variety of agencies, stakeholders and groundwater users will help the DNR become “as intelligent as possible” in creating a usable plan, Stenquist said.

The Bonanza Valley region in 2012 experienced its highest recorded use of groundwater, which was 15 billion gallons.

The area has also experienced an acceleration in the number of permit applications for tapping into the groundwater for agricultural irrigation, according to DNR data.

Currently, 782 wells are permitted in the Bonanza Valley and 733 are crop-related. The other permits are for cities, golf courses and other industries.

In the past, the DNR typically processed 50 to 100 permit applications a year statewide. Last year there were 400 and this year there will likely be more than 400, said Jason Moeckel, also with the DNR.

“That’s a major increase in the number of permits we need to review and make a decision on,” he said, adding that some of those permits are “amendments” and not necessarily for new irrigation wells. But amendments must also undergo a DNR review, he said.

Having people from the region involved with creating a plan for managing groundwater here is an important part of the process, Moeckel said.

“You guys are helping us develop a management plan for this geography,” he said.

Not everyone is pleased with the process or the potential prospect of restrictions and new regulation for groundwater usage.

Several farmers in the audience said irrigated farm fields were being unfairly blamed for groundwater use and expressed concern that the plan would add new burdens to farmers seeking permits for irrigation wells.

Earl Hauge, who farms 2,500 acres of irrigated land northwest of Brooten, did not have much good to say about the job the DNR is doing now with handling irrigation permits and said farmers who irrigate are being unfairly taxed when “everyone is using groundwater.”

Norman DeKok, a retired farmer with 3,000 acres of irrigated farmland, said he thought the groundwater management plan was a “big boondoggle” and that no one is better equipped to be stewards of land and water than farmers.

“We need less government, not more,” DeKok said.

In comments after the meeting, Daniel Whitney — a hydrogeologist with Northeast Technical Services who does work for several farmers with irrigation systems in the Bonanza Valley — said it’s important the process includes “scientifically defensible data” and that “applicable groundwater flow models” are used when permits are reviewed.

“The DNR needs to ensure that they incorporate these principles to their decision-making process,” said Whitney.

The final draft of the Bonanza Valley Groundwater Management Area plan is expected to be completed by September.

The next meeting of the advisory team will be May 28 in Belgrade.

Groundwater management strategies:

The groundwater management strategic plan includes seven strategies:

- Heighten the priority given to groundwater management;

- Improve information available for groundwater management decisions;

- Improve the management of groundwater appropriation permits;

- Improve compliance with groundwater appropriation regulations;

- Improve communication and education for users, stakeholders, partners and the general public about the importance of groundwater resources and the challenges facing groundwater management;

- Effectively address groundwater management challenges in areas of high groundwater use and/or limited groundwater supply;

- Promote the wise use of groundwater and the implementation of water conservation practices.

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