Conservation Minnesota

A sacred source of Minnesota drinking water

During a recent deluge, driving around town, I passed a line of gushing automatic lawn sprinklers. Living amid aqua-abundance, we Minnesotans are a trifle cavalier in our water use.

The source of that sprinkler water is also worth noting. It was the ground, or more specifically, what lies beneath it. Although Minneapolis and St. Paul draw their water from the Mississippi, most communities, including mine, get theirs from wells. So do hundreds of thousands of private well owners. The forgotten resource, groundwater, supplies about 75% of the state’s population with drinking water.

Groundwater is not a collection of underground lakes. Rather, it’s water beneath the land that fills spaces in rock and sediment. Minnesota has a lot of it. One large Minnesota aquifer contains enough water to cover the state to a depth of five feet. But that doesn’t mean we have a surplus.

For one thing, groundwater is what makes our world-class cold water trout streams possible. Protected from the sun’s penetrating rays, groundwater discharges to those streams at a constant, cool temperature. Overuse the water or divert it during construction, and you lose the trout.

Some of the water we draw from the ground returns to it, percolating downward. But a big percentage of it is flushed or drained into sewers, which send it down the nearest river and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes or Hudson Bay. It won’t return in any time scale we understand. We’re mining that groundwater, just as we mine iron.

A couple of thoughts to consider:
• The same high quality treated drinking water that the ground gives up flows from our faucets and fills our toilets. Does that make sense?
• Instead of using tap water on our lawns, maybe we could recycle, on-site, water we generate from laundry, dishwashing, and bathing, which can be recycled on-site. Oregon law promotes that. Minnesota grass won’t mind, either.
• You can find sprinklers with shutoff valves triggered by rain. They cost a little, but will also trim your water bill.

Profligacy with water, including groundwater, is not something Minnesota can afford in the 21st Century. It’s a century of looming water scarcity. The cliché is that water is the new oil, a resource for which some will sacrifice any other value. Do we want to leave ourselves vulnerable to that?

About Dave Dempsey

Dave Dempsey
Dave Dempsey is a resident of Rosemount and author of three books on environmental subjects. He formerly served as Conservation Minnesota's communications director.
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John Helland says:

Dave – Nice job of explaining groundwater and overall water vulnerability.