While a fierce debate continues to rage over proposed sulfide mining in northern Minnesota, another kind of mining that affects the entire state is attracting relatively little notice. The resource being mined is groundwater, and as National Groundwater Awareness Week (March 9-15) passes, it deserves urgent attention.
Groundwater is not an underground lake but usually water beneath the land that fills spaces in rock and sediment. Rain and melting snow penetrates into the ground, making up for water that is withdrawn for human use – unless it’s being used unsustainably. Unfortunately, that’s happening in Minnesota. In 2012, Minnesotans used a record amount of water, even as national water use declined.
Remarkably, in some locations our seemingly water-rich state is coming up dry. Conflicts resulting from depleted wells are multiplying. How can this be? It’s a combination of heavy use and what happens to most of the groundwater we withdraw: it ends up in lakes and streams and flows out of the state, for all intents and purposes, forever. The dictionary says to mine something is to “find and take away.” We’re unintentionally doing that.
Groundwater supplies about 75 percent of Minnesota’s drinking water and nearly 90 percent of the water used for agricultural irrigation. Conserving it is not just a nice thing to do; it’s critical to our future. Big changes are ahead in the way we extract and use groundwater – either voluntary changes or new laws.