Beneath the surface
Minnesota's pending groundwater challenge

Even in the land of 10,000 lakes, water is no longer unlimited. Lakes shrink, groundwater drops, wells go dry or get contaminated. Some cities have to look harder for good municipal water or pay more to treat it. Twenty years ago these were isolated problems. But three-quarters of Minnesota’s residents get their water from aquifer-tapping wells, and today parts of the state seem to be on a path that is not sustainable.

In the Twin Cities, a tussle is growing over whether growing suburbs should shift from tapping wells to pulling water from the Mississippi River. Elsewhere, Park Rapids, Marshall and other cities have had to spend millions of dollars to respond to dropping water levels or contamination. The state has mapped "areas of concern," and an ambitious plan to test 70,000 wells is renewing questions about how much farmers should be required to do to limit nitrate contamination in groundwater.

This Ground Level project, "Beneath the Surface," shines a light on the pressures on Minnesota’s groundwater and how residents, businesses and officials are being asked to adapt.


MAP: Pumping groundwater to contain pollution

More than 4 billion gallons of water are pumped out of the ground in the Twin Cities every year to remove contamination. Some of that water is treated and put to use but much is not. This map shows the 26 sites in the seven-county area that each pump more than 5 million gallons per year. The two sites in yellow pump more than a billion gallons a year. The shaded area is where a new state approach to dealing with groundwater concerns is focused. Figures are 2008-2012 annual averages, except where noted. Source: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

  1. Keith Buttleman at the Metro Council, Matt Kramer at the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, MPR News reporter Elizabeth Dunbar and MPR News editor Dave Peters talk on the Daily Circuit about White Bear Lake and Minnesota’s water challenges more generally. July 29, 2014

  1. Jim Stark, director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Minnesota office, tells MPR News’ Cathy Wurzer that recent heavy rains are replenishing shallow aquifers but that deeper levels of water can take years or even decades to respond. Conservation is still important in many areas, Stark says. June 19, 2014

  1. MPR's Cathy Wurzer spoke with Jason Moeckel about how a week of rainy days affects the water level in our underground aquifers. Moeckel is with the Department of Natural Resources' Division of Ecological and Water Resources.
    May 1, 2014

  1. Dave Peters, Ground Level editor, and Tom Weber, Daily Circuit host, discuss the impact of changes to water around Minnesota and how solutions are being approached.
    February 17, 2014

  1. Even in Minnesota, water is under stress

    Jason Moeckel and Bruce Montgomery discuss water on the Daily Circuit
    February 21, 2014

Water Q & A

How will climate change affect groundwater?

Can we use grass that needs less water?

Why not just fill up White Bear Lake from one of the rivers?

Do you know how much water your neighbor uses?

Can we fill up our underground water supply with stormwater?

Does Minnesota water law make it easier or harder to deal with conflicts?

From the blog

DNR pushes ahead with its groundwater planning

Shifting rain could be lowering groundwater

Satellite: A better way to measure groundwater levels?

Read all "Beneath the Surface" posts

A visual primer

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Minnesota groundwater
Bedrock water
Glacial deposits
It's complex
Six provinces
Some levels dropping
Future levels
Contamination complications
More testing

To help you understand more about Minnesota and its groundwater, check out these links. If you know something that should be included, let us know by sending an email.

"Minnesota’s Groundwater: Is our use sustainable?"[PDF] April 2013 report by the Freshwater Society.

"Groundwater Management Program." October 2013 strategic plan draft by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

"Groundwater and the Mt. Simon Aquifer," a YouTube video primer by the Minnesota DNR on an important Twin Cities water source.

"Groundwater and the Mt. Simon Aquifer," Part 2.

Minnesota's groundwater provinces, an explanation by the Minnesota DNR.

"Minnesota Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan," an August 2013 draft of a plan by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to deal with farm-caused nitrate contamination of groundwater.

A description of underground aquifers in the four-state area. U.S. Geological Survey.

Minnesota groundwater basics. [PDF] Minnesota Geological Survey.

"Condition of Minnesota’s Groundwater, 2007-2011," an August 2013 report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

(PDF) Clean Water Fund Performance Report, measures of water quality, including groundwater.

The state of water. April 2014 report and recommendations by the Center for Rural Policy and Development.