White Bear Lake

sailboat on a lake

White Bear Lake is an important natural resource in the northeast Twin Cities metropolitan area. It is regularly enjoyed by boaters, swimmers and others who enjoy wildlife watching or birding. The DNR continues to study the complex interactions between White Bear Lake and the groundwater resources near and below the lake and is committeed to working with residents, business and local governments on managing the water resources in this area for current and future generations.

 

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.

Sustainability Analysis

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 groundwater use will 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.

Protective Elevation

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 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 water level at or before which 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 DNR will implement reasonable, science-based permit adjustments to support the protective elevation.

Groundwater Management Area

The North & East Metro Groundwater Management Area Plan is guiding the DNR’s efforts through 2020 to manage groundwater appropriations sustainably in the area (including 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.

 

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. Analysis by the DNR showed that groundwater use near White Bear Lake meets the groundwater sustainability standard in state law. The following provides a series of events related to the litigation.

2012: Lawsuit Filed

In November 2012, the White Bear Lake Homeowners Association and White Bear Lake Restoration 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.

2014: Plaintiffs and DNR Settle
In December, the DNR and the plaintiffs in the lawsuit reached a settlement contingent on achieving several goals in a 36-month stay period. 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 approval of funding for the feasibility and design for shifting the source of water for six communities to surface water in the White Bear Lake area.
  • Achieve funding for the alternative water supply by the end of the 2016 Minnesota legislative session.
  • Inform the plaintiffs and provide them an opportunity to comment on groundwater use permit applications and permit changes in the area.
  • Invite the plaintiffs to participate as members on the North & East Metro Groundwater Management Area project advisory team.
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. Since the proposed bill did not come to fruition, the stay on the litigation was lifted and the lawsuit went to trial. The “Phase I” project as defined in the settlement agreement would have connected 6 municipalities to raw or treated water purchased from St. Paul Regional Water Services.

2017: Ramsey County District Court Order
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 lasting three weeks. The District Court found in favor of the plaintiffs on August 30, 2017 and ordered a number of restrictions and requirements for the DNR to implement. 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 5-miles of White Bear Lake.
  • The DNR was required to amend existing groundwater permits within a 5-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.
    • All permittees are required 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.
    • Public water suppliers are required to develop a contingency plan to shift their source of water from groundwater to surface water.
    • All permittees are required 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, within a 5-mile radius, individually and cumulatively to assess whether the permitted use meets the groundwater sustainability standard in law.
  • The DNR was required to analyze the maximum authorized volumes in the groundwater use permits within a 5-mile radius of White Bear Lake and evaluate the impact of that use on water levels of the lake.
  • Publish the results of the analysis of permitted use within a 5-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.
    • 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 DNR must evaluate compliance with the water conservation requirements on all permits within a 5-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).

Following the Court Order, the DNR issued a statement regarding the stipulations in the Order.

Permit Changes

The DNR made changes to 44 groundwater appropriation permits within a 5-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 changes made in January and March of 2018. The contested process is outlined in Minn. Stat. 103G.311 as guided by Minn. Stat. Chapter 14. The permit changes applied to the groundwater appropriation permits within 5 miles of White Bear Lake are in abeyance until the case is heard before an administrative law judge and a decision is made. The presiding administrative law judge is not proceeding with the contested case hearing(s) until the outcome of DNR’s appeal to the District Court order is known.

2018: Court Order Changes, Legislation, Sustainability Analysis Completed

Court Order Amended

In March 2018, the Ramsey County District Court issued an amendment to the Order that allowed the DNR to issue permits for temporary groundwater appropriations within 5 miles of White Bear Lake.

The Court issued a partial stay on September 10, 2018 for the parts of its Order that required DNR to modify groundwater appropriation permits within 5 miles of White Bear Lake.

This came several months after the DNR had imposed the permit changes and after enactment of legislation barring the DNR from enforcing those conditions.

Legislation

In June 2018, a bill (Minnesota Session Laws 2018, Chapter 181 - House File No. 4003) was enacted that prohibited the DNR from enforcing the permit conditions DNR imposed pursuant to the Court Order stipulations. This law was in effect through July 1, 2019.

Sustainability Analysis Completed

In October 2018, the DNR published the results of the court-ordered sustainability analysis using the transient groundwater flow model. Major findings of the analysis were as follows:

  • 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); and
  • Temporary irrigation bans within nearby cities would not have a significant effect on water levels in White Bear Lake.
2019: Additional Court Case Proceedings

The DNR appealed the District Court order to the Minnesota State Court of Appeals. On April 22, 2019, the MN State Court of Appeals, following oral arguments in January 2019, reversed a prior 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 MN Supreme Court under petition for further review. The MN Supreme Court, on July 16, 2019, granted the petition for further review and will review the case.

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