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Woodbury water supply fine — for now

While Woodbury is blessed with a plentiful, clean and affordable groundwater system that has enough to supply residential, commercial and industrial users for years, data reveals it will not be enough to support a growing population.

New studies by the Metropolitan Council and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources suggest that water usage will double over the next three decades and that current resources are at risk of drying up.

Woodbury, Cottage Grove and the entire northeast metro are the focus of studies questioning whether the current groundwater system will be sufficient come 2040, or if the region will have to start drawing from the Mississippi River.

Woodbury currently uses about 2.4 billion gallons of water each year through its municipal groundwater system that pumps from the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer.

That use is expected to go up to 3.6 billion gallons by 2020; 4.2 billion by 2030; and 4.8 billion by 2040, according to Metropolitan Council figures.

Those numbers – combined with 3M pumping as much as the entire city of Woodbury uses in a winter day, or about 4 million gallons each day to clean up dump sites – are a concern that continuing the status quo poses a threat to future water supply.

“If we continue business as usual, if we continue relying on groundwater as the most used source for water supply in the metro area, we’ll end up having increased decline in the aquifers,” said Ali Elhassan, manager of water supply planning for the Metropolitan Council. “That’s why we need to look at alternative water supply.”

Drawing from one source

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has established a groundwater management area that includes all of Washington County, Ramsey County and the 10 most southern communities of Anoka County.

All of those communities share the same groundwater sources. The entire region is anticipated to use up to 40 billion gallons of water on an annual basis by 2040, based on population growth projections.

Jason Moeckel, inventory monitoring and analysis section manager in the ecological and water resources division of the DNR, said studies so far confirm that future water use will not be supported by groundwater alone.

But it is still not known how that will play out in smaller geographic areas within the boundary. Some cities are able to connect to already established surface water systems, while others aren’t so conveniently located. Some cities are younger, still seeing development, while others are already at capacity.

“The communities of Cottage Grove and Woodbury as two growing communities might have a different situation than, say, communities like Fridley or some other places that are within the boundary area even though they’re (using) the same aquifer,” he said.

Woodbury’s second phase of development is under way with numerous projects breaking ground last year and more to come this year.

The city has an ordinance in place limiting how much water residential properties use for irrigation. It has implemented new initiatives to reuse and recharge the aquifer with stormwater and it’s also working with developers to make sure water conservation efforts continue with holding ponds that recharge the aquifer with stormwater.

Woodbury has also been saving 100 million gallons of water every year by using stormwater to irrigate the Eagle Valley Golf Course.

But despite all efforts to make sure the aquifer and municipal wells don’t dry up, Woodbury’s water use per capita is still higher than what city officials are aiming to see.

“Woodbury is a young city, it’s a growing city, there are many, many new lawns out there that are still being established,” Woodbury Public Works Director Klayton Eckles said. “Those younger lawns tend to need more water.”

Compared to St. Paul, which has small, established lots and uses about 70 gallons a day, Woodbury averages about 100 gallons from residential properties alone.

Alternative connections

Feasibility studies are under way to figure out what additional water reuse options are fitting for each of those communities in the groundwater management area boundary.

Some of those alternatives might result in an increase in water costs with the most expensive being a regional treatment plant costing an estimated $100 million.

“We have plenty of surface water that’s available and we’re only taking 2 percent of the flow in the Mississippi River,” Elhassan said.

The majority of the metro area uses groundwater because it essentially requires no treatment, and therefore is cheaper than surface water that cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul rely on.

But Elhassan argues that groundwater is not all that much cheaper than surface water because most suburban communities must filter municipal well water at home.

About 1,000 gallons of Mississippi River water costs $5, while the same amount costs $1 in Woodbury, he said.

“But here is the catch, that’s why I’m saying it is not cheap,” he said, “Each house in Woodbury has a water softener … the cost of softening 1,000 gallons is $5.”

Without having the full studies done, Elhassan said it would be ideal to use surface water when it’s available and have wells as a backup system.

He suggests a mixed approach with communities closer to the river pumping from the river and those further away to continue pumping groundwater.

“We’ll figure out how to have a system that has equitable cost sharing,” he said. “You don’t want to create a system that has winners and losers while all the communities would benefit from the same project.”

But communities like Cottage Grove, which has 11 wells and uses about 1.4 billion gallons a year, are not fans of that approach for a number of reasons.

City Administrator Ryan Schroeder said it’s not easy to mix water resources and that the quality of river water takes extensive treatment before it’s up to drinking standards.

“You need significant infrastructure to enhance that quality,” he said. “Or we need to purchase water from somebody who has that infrastructure. That’s horrifically expense.”

One of the alternative options being considered is to connect east metro communities to St. Paul infrastructure that draws from the Mississippi, which would cost “tens of millions of dollars,” Schroeder said.

It’s no secret that Woodbury would also like to avoid having to go to surface water and charge double the rates it’s currently charging.

Woodbury water rates start at 88 cents for every 1,000 gallons and go up to $4.88 for those using more than 150,000 gallons per quarter.

“The water quality is very good and it’s very reasonably priced in terms of production,” Eckles said of groundwater. “We’d like to do everything we can to preserve that as our main source for water.”

3M use, reuse

To address perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) found in certain products made by 3M, the company began pumping water through its own capture wells at dump sites in Oakdale, Woodbury and Cottage Grove a number of years ago.

Using the same aquifer that the rest of the east metro utilizes, 3M pumps about 4 million gallons a day to clean up each of those sites, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which regulates pumping permits.

The company continuously pumps water from underneath the dump to keep it flowing into the dump site instead of away to private or public wells, therefore avoiding contamination.

On the one hand, the practice is protecting drinking water, but on the other hand, the amount used is so large that it’s also threatening aquifer levels.

3M currently discharges the water to the Mississippi River after it leaves its dump sites.

Eckles said new and innovative ways to treat the water, put it back into the ground and recharge the aquifer instead of getting rid of it, could be a feasible option to protect water supply.

“You’d have almost a closed loop there at the site,” he said. “Create suction, cleansing itself with its own water. That’s one idea that’s come up.”

It’s a new idea that has never been done in Minnesota before and if it has, it’s only been done on an experimental basis, Eckles added.

“I don’t think our regulators are thinking in those terms yet,” he said.

Next steps

Groundwater management area feasibility study results will be released in June. Meanwhile, multiple stakeholders will continue discussions regarding water conservation and alternative water supply.

Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens said she’s hoping the city’s conservation efforts are being considered in the feasibility studies and that new alternatives don’t end up impacting future population growth.

“We want them to look at the things we’re doing to benefit the aquifer and to help balance it out so that we can continue to use that natural resource and grow,” she said. “We just want to make sure everything is explored.”

Moeckel said not all water needs to be as clean as drinking water and northeast metro communities will have an opportunity to explore how to reuse and recharge water for industrial and irrigation purposes.

“The idea is they get some predictability and they can start to figure out what kind of innovations and adjustments make sense.” He said. “And doing that now rather than 20, 30 years from now is key to success.”

Eckles also said it will be crucial to have a unified vision for the groundwater management area because all of those cities are pumping from the same aquifer.

Even if Woodbury does all the right things and its neighboring areas don’t do their part, there could still be a dilemma, he said.

“The studies showed if the region, not just Woodbury, continued to grow without doing anything to protect our water resource, there could be a problem, there could be shortage,” Eckles said. “And that’s 20 years out. So we have plenty of time to work on a solution.”

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.