White Bear Lake is an important natural resource in the northeast Twin Cities metropolitan area. It is regularly enjoyed by boaters, anglers, swimmers, birders and wildlife watchers. The DNR continues to study the complex interactions between White Bear Lake and the groundwater resources near and below the lake and is committed to working with residents, business and local governments on managing the water resources in this area for current and future generations.
White Bear Lake Litigation
In 2012, a lawsuit filed against the DNR claimed the DNR allowed communities and businesses in the White Bear Lake area to use too much groundwater. The lawsuit claimed groundwater use led to unacceptably low lake levels. The following summarizes major elements and the current status of this litigation.
- 2021 – 2022: Additional Court Order implementation
Collective annual withdrawal limit for White Bear Lake
In early 2022, the DNR used its transient groundwater flow model to establish a collective annual withdrawal limit for White Bear Lake. This analysis determined that a reduction in water use of approximately 40% would be needed to maintain the protective elevation. The DNR determined that applying this reduction in accordance with the water use priorities in statute (Minnesota Statute 103G.261) would result in an allocation of 55 gallons per person per day, at current population levels…basically enough for domestic water use only. All other lower priority water uses for agriculture production, commercial, industrial and institutional purposes would need to be curtailed. Concluding that amending water appropriation permits in this fashion would not protect public health and welfare, the DNR sought clarification from the court on the implementation of the collective annual withdrawal limit.
In April 2022, the District Court clarified that its order was not intended to limit municipal water supplies to 55 gallons per capita per day.
The DNR continues to work with the district court, plaintiffs and White Bear Lake area communities to identify the next steps required to implement the District Court Order.
- 2020: Supreme Court Ruling and Subsequent Steps
On July 15, 2020, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled, reversing portions of the Appeals Court’s Order and remanding the matter to the Court of Appeals to address the remaining unresolved issues.
After further briefing, the Minnesota Court of Appeals, on December 28, 2020, affirmed the District Court's August 2017 Order. The Court of Appeals noted that the permit holders had the right to appeal certain permit amendments ordered by the District Court via a contested case hearing. The District Court maintains jurisdiction over the matter and continues to oversee DNR permitting activities in the White Bear Lake Area.
Permit contested case hearings proceedOn May 5, 2021, the DNR informed the Office of Administrative Hearings that the appeals process in state court was concluded and the contested case process could commence for the 20 permit holders that appealed the DNR’s modifications to their permits back in 2018. The contested case process is now ongoing, and the permit modifications remain in abeyance until that process is complete.
- 2019: Appeals Proceedings
The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled on the DNR’s appeal on April 22, 2019. The Appeals Court reversed the District Court decision in the case and remanded the matter back to the District Court for further administrative proceedings. On May 21, 2019, the plaintiffs in the case filed an appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court under petition for further review. The Minnesota Supreme Court, on July 16, 2019, granted the petition for further review.
- 2018: Court Order Changes, Legislation, DNR Appeal, Sustainability Analysis Completed
Court Order Amended
In March 2018, the Ramsey County District Court amended its Order, allowing the DNR to issue permits for temporary groundwater appropriations within five miles of White Bear Lake, such as those needed for construction dewatering.
In June 2018, a law was enacted (Minnesota Session Laws 2018, Chapter 181 - House File No. 4003) that prohibited the DNR from enforcing the permit modifications the DNR imposed pursuant to the Court Order (see above). This law was in effect through July 1, 2019.
DNR Appeals to Minnesota Court of Appeals
The DNR appealed the Ramsey County District Court ruling on September 12, 2018 to the Minnesota Court of Appeals on a number of issues related to the trial court decision.
Sustainability Analysis Completed
In October 2018, the DNR published the results of the court-ordered sustainability analysis using the transient groundwater flow model the DNR had developed:
- Groundwater use has been declining.
- Current groundwater use complies with Minnesota’s groundwater sustainability standard.
- Current groundwater use has contributed to water levels falling below the recently established protective elevation for White Bear Lake (established in 2016 to protect recreational uses).
- Temporary irrigation bans within nearby cities would not have a significant effect on water levels in White Bear Lake.
- 2017-2018: Ramsey County District Court Order and Resulting Permit Modifications
Following failure to obtain feasibility funding for the “Phase I” project before the end of the 2016 legislative session, the lawsuit went to trial in March 2017. It was a bench trial (i.e., the judge, rather than a jury, acts as the fact finder) lasting three weeks.
The District Court found in favor of the plaintiffs on August 30, 2017 and imposed a number of restrictions and requirements on the DNR. The primary outcomes of the Order were:
- The DNR is prohibited from issuing new groundwater appropriation permits and increases in existing groundwater appropriation permits within five miles of White Bear Lake.
- The DNR was required to amend existing groundwater permits within a five-mile radius of White Bear Lake with the following stipulations:
- Require a residential irrigation ban when the water level of White Bear Lake drops below 923.5 feet. The ban remains in effect until the water level reaches 924 feet.
- Require all permittees to develop a per capita water use plan to reduce residential per capita water use to 75 gallons per day and total per capita water use to 90 gallons per day.
- Require public water suppliers to develop a contingency plan to shift their source of water from groundwater to surface water.
- Require all permittees to report to the DNR annually on collaborative efforts with other north and east metro communities to develop per capita water use plans.
- The DNR was required to analyze the groundwater permits that draw on wells within a five-mile radius of White Bear Lake to assess, both individually and cumulatively, whether the permitted use meets the groundwater sustainability standard in state law.
- The DNR was required to analyze the maximum authorized volumes in the groundwater use permits within a five-mile radius of White Bear Lake and evaluate the impact of that use on water levels of the lake.
- The DNR was required to publish the results of the analysis of permitted use within a five-mile radius of White Bear Lake in a public newspaper, understandable to the general public.
- Additional requirements of the Court Order:
- No groundwater permits can be issued unless the DNR has sufficient hydrologic data to understand the impact on White Bear Lake and the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer.
- The DNR is required to work with the Metropolitan Council to evaluate water conservation goals and update them as needed.
- Water supply plans must include measurable water conservation goals and the DNR must evaluate compliance with the water conservation requirements on all permits within a five-mile radius of White Bear Lake.
- Set a collective annual withdrawal limit for White Bear Lake.
The District Court's order can be viewed at the Minnesota Judicial Branch (Ramsey County, Case File: 62-CV-13-2414).
Permit Changes Pursuant to District Court Order
In January and March of 2018, the DNR modified 44 groundwater appropriation permits within a five-mile radius of White Bear Lake to address the requirements in the District Court Order.
- All permittees received the following permit conditions: implement a residential irrigation ban when lake levels drop below 923.5 feet until the lake reaches 924 feet; develop per capita water use plans; report on collaborative efforts with other communities in developing per capita water use plans.
- Public water suppliers received an additional permit condition that requires them to develop a contingency plan to shift their source of water from groundwater to surface water.
Twenty permit holders requested contested case hearings following the permit modifications. The contested process is outlined in Minn. Stat. 103G.311 as guided by Minn. Stat. Chapter 14. Each contested permit modification is in abeyance until the case is heard before an administrative law judge and a final agency decision is made.
- 2016: No Legislative Funding for Shift to Surface Water Use
The DNR and the plaintiffs in the lawsuit met with legislators to discuss the prospects of passing legislation in the 2016 session to address the “Phase I” alternative water supply Northeast Metro Project outlined in the settlement agreement. In April of that year, a bill was introduced to provide some funding to assess the feasibility of the “Phase I” project, but the measure was not enacted. Because the proposed bill was not enacted, the stay on the litigation was lifted per the terms of the settlement agreement and the lawsuit went to trial. The “Phase I” project as defined in the settlement agreement would have connected six municipalities to either raw or treated water purchased from St. Paul Regional Water Services.
- 2014: Plaintiffs and DNR Reach Settlement Agreement
- In December of 2014, the DNR and the plaintiffs in the lawsuit reached a settlement, contingent on achieving several requirements. The settlement agreement required:
- Work on water conservation and efficiency strategies with 13 area public water suppliers.
- Establish a protective elevation for White Bear Lake.
- Support legislative funding for a feasibility and design study to shift the source water for six communities in the White Bear Lake area to surface water.
- Achieve funding for the alternative water supply by the end of the 2016 Minnesota legislative session.
- Inform the plaintiffs of groundwater use permit applications and permit changes in the area, and provide them an opportunity to comment on those applications and proposed permit changes.
- Invite the plaintiffs to participate as members on the North and East Metro Groundwater Management Area project advisory team.
- 2012: Lawsuit Filed
In November 2012, the White Bear Lake Restoration Association and the White Bear Lake Homeowners Association filed a suit in Ramsey County District Court alleging the DNR permitted too much groundwater use near White Bear Lake, causing the lake water levels to drop unacceptably.
Managing Water in the White Bear Lake Area
White Bear Lake water levels fluctuate depending on weather and other factors, with a range of nearly eight feet between its historic high and low.
A scientific analysis completed in August 2018 by the DNR shows that groundwater use in the White Bear Lake area meets Minnesota’s groundwater sustainability standard. This means that current groundwater use does not harm the lake’s plants, fish or animals, degrade water quality or reduce the ability of future generations to meet their household water needs. The analysis also shows that groundwater use in the area has contributed to lower water levels in White Bear Lake and that multi-year bans on residential irrigation will have a minimal effect on lake levels.
- DNR Analysis: Current Groundwater Use is Sustainable But Does Affect White Bear Lake
- (summary of DNR analysis, as published in the White Bear Press on October 17, 2018)
- DNR Modeling Analysis Technical Report PDF
- DNR Model Documentation
The DNR established a protective elevation for White Bear Lake in December 2016. The protective elevation is 922.0 feet above mean sea level and is an effort to recognize and balance the ecosystem benefits and negative recreational impacts of lake levels at the lower end of White Bear Lake’s historic range.
A protective elevation is a regulatory measure used to trigger changes in surface water appropriations to prevent undue harm to a lake. It protects and maintains fish and wildlife habitat and supports recreational uses of the lake. The protective elevation is not a fixed lake water level that is maintained or a minimum level that is guaranteed.
For White Bear Lake, the protective elevation is established to assist the DNR in managing groundwater appropriations. It is a lake level at or before which the DNR will work with permit holders to modify their water use in order to reduce the likelihood that the lake will fall below the protective elevation for an extended period of time. This does not mean the DNR will “shut off” drinking water in order to protect recreational uses of the lake. But it does mean that the DNR will implement reasonable, science-based permit adjustments to support the protective elevation.
- Fact Sheet - Protective Elevation for White Bear Lake
- Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law for the Protection Elevation
Groundwater Management Area
The North and East Metro Groundwater Management Area Plan continues to guide the DNR's approach to manage groundwater appropriations sustainably in the area (including those appropriations that affect White Bear Lake). The plan establishes sustainability goals to help appropriation permit holders plan for their future water use and ensure groundwater supplies remain adequate to meet human needs while protecting lakes, streams and wetlands.
- Dan Miller, project manager, 651-259-5731