MINNEAPOLIS -- By most accounts, Minnesota and North Dakota are not lacking for water.
In the most recent version of the Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, the World Resources Institute scored the “water stress” on Minnesota at 1.67 on a five-point scale, meaning it draws between 10% to 20% of its available water each year. North Dakota scored slightly above at 1.68.
There are parts of both states, however, where water can be difficult to access or is in high demand. In Minnesota — where a majority of residents rely on groundwater sources — those places include “the drier southwestern areas of the state, in the heavily irrigated central sands, and in the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area,” according to a 2016 report by the state Department of Natural Resources.
“We have not experienced a really big drought in the state of Minnesota for quite some time,” cautioned Jason Moeckel of the DNR.
And while it’s difficult to predict when the next dry cycle will hit, he said, “what we can do is prepare ourselves for that.”
'The urgency room'
The term “urgency room” comes up time and again in talking points and reports on Minnesota’s water use.
State environmental officials use it to characterize the issue that faces a handful of communities: a greater demand for groundwater than can be readily supplied. That demand is not yet so great, the analogy goes, as to warrant a trip to the emergency room.
Moeckel, a section manager at the department’s water resources division, said the causes of water stress can vary by region. But in most places, he said, it looks more like the decline of water levels than wells going dry.
For parts of the Twin Cities, such as Washington and Ramsey counties, Moeckel said the greatest demand comes from public water supply systems, including those owned by municipal, public and private entities. In southwestern Minnesota, he said, groundwater sources are strained by a combination of public water supplies and agricultural irrigation.
In the Fargo-Moorhead area, Moeckel said that a growing population is putting some stress on the limited amount of water available in underground aquifers.
“The amount coming in and the amount going out are constantly in flux,” Moeckel said.
Historically, Moeckel said that Minnesota has relied on groundwater because of its availability and relatively low treatment costs. One way that the state is trying to reformat the way it is managed is through its “Groundwater Management Areas."
Three pilot areas have been established in Minnesota so far: one in the north and eastern sides of the Twin Cities area, one in the Bonanza Valley and one by the Straight River. State law allows for the “total annual water appropriations and uses” to be limited within them.
Each has its own advisory team made up of public and private stakeholders to assist in the development of a comprehensive management plan.
The needs of each area differ from one to the next. In the Bonanza Valley, for example, concerns over water availability are rooted partly in the growth of agricultural irrigation.
The number of irrigation permits issued in the region grew by 175% in the last 25 years, per the DNR. According to Jim Anderson, whose family farm near Belgrade resides within the Bonanza Valley management zone, irrigation helps to offset the loss of rainwater in an area whose sandy soil does not retain much water.
“I think we hold maybe about three inches of water in the topsoil, and we need to supplement rainfall in the irrigation water,” he said.
Together with his brother and sons, Anderson raises corn, kidney beans and sugar beets on the irrigated farm. He belongs to both the Irrigators' Association of Minnesota and the Bonanza Valley management area’s advisory team.
For him and for others who live and work in management areas, the hope is that a model for sharing information and conservation practices can be developed.
“If nothing else, it’s been really valuable to bring people together," Moeckel said.
It's unclear if any more management areas will be designated in the state. Several state officials said there are no immediate plans to do so.
In southwestern Minnesota, a related kind of public education effort is already unfolding in the form of what the state calls "Community-based Aquifer Management Partnerships." Moeckel said they are planned to use less staff resources than the management areas while still informing locals about the sources of their water and entities that are using them.
'A time of abundance'
Despite going through periods of drought in the late 1980s, Jon Patch of the North Dakota State Water Commission said that the state has been "in a time of abundance" in terms of water availability since the early 1990s. He warned, though, that “we can and we will again in the future feel that strain" of water shortages.
For decades, water has been delivered to rural and less populous parts of North Dakota through the underground network of pipes that comprise the state's rural water systems. Eric Volk, executive director of the North Dakota Rural Water Systems Association, said the systems are of benefit to communities that lack the resources to upgrade or manage water treatment facilities of their own.
According to Patch, the Water Commission's director of water appropriations, approximately 370 municipalities and 30 water districts rely on rural water systems today. Many of the cities that are linked to rural water systems, Volk said, have populations smaller than 500.
Volk said the systems are operated by 30 entities, four of them tribal.
Patch said the rural systems have done a "great job" of serving the state, and that "we’re not seeing a major strain on any of our communities."
Still, Volk said, the scope and age of some systems results in the need for preventative maintenance. He estimated that there approximately 40,000 miles of pipeline sprawling throughout the state.
Approximately 5,000 of those, he said, are made up of plastic pipe that were joined together with industrial adhesives. Much of the adhesive joints, he said, are battling decay and are slowly being replaced with more efficient couplings.
While many parts of the state draw their freshwater from small aquifers, Patch said that the Missouri River is the "crown jewel" of the state's water supply. It will also be the supply for a $1.19 billion, 165-mile pipeline project that is planned to serve parts of eastern North Dakota during periods of drought.
Construction of the Red River Valley Water Supply Project, which is being planned through a partnership between the state Garrison Diversion Conservancy District and Lake Agassiz Water Authority, is slated to start next spring with plans to be complete in 2029.
Other states in the Upper Midwest fared similarly to Minnesota and North Dakota in the version of the atlas published in August 2019. South Dakota scored slightly below at 1.42 while Wisconsin scored 1.49.