Lutsen Mountain Corporation (LMC) Proposed Water Appropriation Permit Amendment from the Poplar River - Frequently Asked Questions
October 27, 2011
Q: I thought Lutsen Mountain Corporation (LMC) already had a permit to take water from the Poplar River for snowmaking. What is this about?
A: The 2011 Legislature authorized LMC to take up to 150 million gallons of water from the Poplar River each year for five years, but also had a provision that suspends the appropriation if flows fall below 15 cubic feet per second (cfs) for more than five consecutive days. The flow in the river has been at or near that threshold for weeks. It is anticipated that when LMC wants to start using water in early November, the appropriation would have to be suspended. LMC is seeking special authorization to allow them to appropriate water when flows are as low as 5 cfs. A separate temporary permit is being considered to allow this. That permit would only be good for one season, with the possibility of renewal for no more than 3 years.
Q: Why is there any concern about LMC taking water out of the Poplar River?
A: The Poplar River is a designated trout stream. Under other state laws, permanent appropriations of water from these unique resources is prohibited. Water appropriations from such streams can adversely impact fish populations and other aquatic life, especially during periods of low flow. At very low flows, it is possible that the Poplar River would freeze to the bottom, severely damaging the native trout population. However, it is also possible that such a freeze would happen even if the temporary permit was not granted, given the naturally occurring dry conditions and the unusually variable nature of the river flow.
Q: Why does LMC need to take water from the Poplar River?
A: Snowmaking is essential to operating a profitable winter sports facility. The Poplar River flows right through the LMC property and has been used for snowmaking since 1964. Due to the geology of the area, it is not possible to use a well to supply the quantity of water needed for snowmaking as many other ski areas do. Other than the Poplar River, the only other source of water on the property adequate for snowmaking is Lake Superior. LMC estimates that it would cost more than $3 million to install a pipeline to Lake Superior that would meet its snowmaking needs, and they need to acquire land interests for the system closer to the lake.
Q: Why is there a problem this year?
A: The Lutsen area has been in a severe drought condition for the past two months, and flows were as low as 7 cfs in September. Usually fall rains recharge streamflow going into the winter: That has not happened this year. As of October 26th the flow was measured at 14.4 cfs.
Q: If LMC has been appropriating water out of the Poplar River since 1964, why all the fuss this year?
A: LMC has been gradually expanding its snowmaking operation over the past 10 years. Only within the last two years has the DNR been able to measure flows of the Poplar River during the winter. For most water appropriations around the state, July and August are the critical months to measure streamflow. The Lutsen situation is somewhat unique in that they take most of their water in November through January.
Q: How much of the river is affected by this permit?
A: The appropriation would affect 2.5 miles of the Poplar River, from the uppermost pumping site to the stream's mouth at Lake Superior. This stretch includes about 2.4 miles supporting a small resident brook trout population, and 0.1 miles supporting small numbers of juvenile steelhead and salmon.
Q: How many trout might be affected if this permit is granted?
A: This stretch of the river probably supports 100 to 200 brook trout, which is a relatively low number. Juvenile steelhead and salmon in the lower 0.1 miles are less likely to be affected because they have more access to deep pools.
Q: If water flows are currently low, won't trout already be stressed?
A: Conditions will become stressful for trout at current flows once cold weather sets in and the river begins to freeze. Conditions will be worsened if we get freezing weather with little or no snow cover.
Q: If trout are already stressed by low water, will additional appropriations increase their mortality?
A: Yes. When stream flow is already low, appropriating water will reduce flows even further, reducing the chances that trout would be able to survive the winter.
Q: What assurance is there that LMC will find a new water source within 3 years, and where will the funding come from?
A: The DNR will be working closely with LMC to find an alternate water source, and to identify suitable sources of funding assistance. It's clear that the Poplar River is not a reliable long-term source for water in the amounts needed by LMC, given the very low flows that occasionally occur.
Q: If there is a significant amount of trout mortality this winter, how long will it take for the river to recover?
A: In similar situations in North Shore streams, trout populations have recovered in three to five years when some remnant population has survived the winter. Brook trout populations upstream in the Poplar River have survived harsh winters in the past, and should provide a pool that would eventually repopulate the lower river.