Local cities adapt to changing water availability

A view from the White Bear Lake Yacht Club show the impacts of declining water levels on White Bear and other area lakes.

According to Steve Kernik, Environmental Planner with the City of Woodbury, there is a distinction to be made when talking about city efforts to conserve water, “Before White Bear Lake…and then after.” Like other communities in Washington County, Woodbury gets 100% of its municipal water supply from wells that tap into groundwater aquifers. Whether it’s water for drinking, flushing toilets, watering lawns or cooling factory machinery, it all comes from the same source – cool, clean groundwater that has been naturally filtered through years of infiltration and percolation.

Like other growing communities, Woodbury is also keenly aware of the city’s increasing water needs. More homes and people mean more wells to drill and more money to spend. Then there is the question, will there be enough water? Ten years ago, the Metropolitan Council released frightening projections for aquifer draw-downs in portions of Washington and Dakota Counties. Around the same time, water managers began wondering if new wells in Woodbury might impact Valley Creek, a nearby trout stream fed by groundwater. Along with many other metro area communities, Woodbury implemented summer watering restrictions, adjusted its water rates to encourage conservation, and began searching for ways to reduce its per capita water consumption. Then White Bear Lake started shrinking and suddenly everyone was talking about groundwater.

In northern Washington County, the City of Hugo has also been adapting to meet water needs as the community grows. Like Woodbury, the city has adjusted water rates and implemented watering restrictions. City ordinances also include landscaping requirements for new development that encourage shade trees and native landscaping, when possible, and also require builders to put down topsoil before laying sod so that lawns won’t need as much water. Despite all these efforts, City  Administrator Bryan Bear says they felt like they were “in the crosshairs,” once people started talking about the impacts of groundwater use on White Bear and other area lakes.

Now that groundwater has become such a hot topic, both Woodbury and Hugo are ramping up their efforts to reduce municipal water use and looking to irrigation, especially, for improvement opportunities. “During the winter we can supply all of our city water needs with only three wells,” explains Kernik, “but during the summer we need 17 to meet peak water demands.” Even with increased water rates and watering restrictions in place, summer water use continues to climb, especially in the new developments where built-in irrigation systems are the norm. At the same time, however, the city also struggles to manage stormwater runoff from roads and developed areas. Last year, while Washington County was widening County Road 19, Woodbury and the South Washington Watershed District worked with them to redesign existing stormwater ponds at Eagle Valley and Prestwick Golf Courses so that the irrigation systems can reuse runoff water from the road to water the golf course greens instead of pumping new water from the aquifer.

Up in Hugo, the city recently completed a similar project at Oneka Ridge Golf Course with help from the Rice Creek Watershed District. Runoff from surrounding ditches is routed into ponds that feed the irrigation system, and when there is left-over water, it flows to infiltration trenches that help the water to soak into the ground. Currently, Hugo is looking into the feasibility of retrofitting stormwater ponds in a couple dozen Homeowner Associations within the city so that they can reuse stormwater for irrigation as well. In addition to looking for more places to reuse stormwater water, staff and officials from both Woodbury and Hugo know that educating the public and changing residential landscaping practices will be critical to ensure that municipal water use is sustainable in the long run. “We’re bringing all our ideas to the table right now,” says Kernik. “The goal is to hold water use at today’s levels even once the city is fully developed.”

To download a one-page fact sheet with recommendations for mowing, irrigation and aeration to promote a healthy and less thirsty lawn, go to www.mnwcd.org/lawn-care. Experts recommend that you mow often but keep your grass tall (at least 2.5 inches in spring and fall, and 3 inches in summer), aerate compacted soils once per year around Labor Day, and install rain and soil moisture sensors on irrigation systems to reduce unnecessary watering.  Learn more about native plants for replacing lawn at www.BlueThumb.org.