Railroad proposes to take MN water southwest

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Unlike Great Lakes, inland waters have relatively few protections

By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership – (@mattjdoll)

On Thursday, the Star Tribune reported that the company Progressive Rail has offered an unprecedented new proposal to transfer half a billion gallons of water each year from two wells in Dakota County to the Colorado River basin. This water would be used for “commercial purposes” in the agricultural region that has experienced significant drought conditions in recent years.

It seems highly unlikely that this proposal will meet environmental standards under current Minnesota law. It would have to meet the conditions of a series of DNR permits that Commissioner Strommen said are highly unlikely to be met, and it faces strong pushback from Dakota County. But the idea that Minnesota’s water is up for exploitation may not die so easily.

As much as it would seem to go without saying, we find ourselves having to say it anyway: this proposal is simply unjust and unacceptable.

Dakota County communities struggle with groundwater contamination as it is. It’s quite possible that this water diversion would not only reduce Dakota County’s water supply, but make its nitrate problems worse. And it would set a harmful precedent for Minnesota’s most valuable resource, opening our already-threatened aquifers to even worse commercial exploitation.

In addition, the climate impacts of shipping half a billion gallons of water a year by rail – or even by pipeline – across half the country would be enormous. Though the climate-influenced droughts in the Southwest are serious and demand attention and resources, we need to make sure that the cure doesn’t worsen the disease.

The Great Lakes as a model for protecting Minnesota water

Dakota County lies squarely within the Mississippi River watershed. If the railroad was proposing to extract water from, say, the Duluth area, it would run afoul of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Compact, an agreement between the Great Lakes State, our Federal Government and Canada that protects the Great Lakes.

The Compact establishes a ban on new diversions of water from the Great Lakes Basin into a different watershed, with very limited exceptions for communities along the lakes. It requires that in the case of such an exception, water withdrawn from within the basin must be returned to the basin in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the health of the Great Lakes. It also mandates that such an exception can only move forward if it can prove that there is no feasible, cost effective, and environmentally sound water supply alternative – including conservation of existing water supplies.

There are a few other terms relating to diversions in the compact, but all that is to say that Great Lakes Basin water could not feasibly be diverted to an entirely different region under current law.

Minnesota would benefit greatly for such protections applying to waters in the basins of the Mississippi-Missouri and the Red River of the North. We’re glad to see that many legislators are already pledging to take action to block this and other harmful diversions of Minnesota waters. At a time when 40% of Minnesota’s waters are impaired, we can’t afford even more threats to the future of our most precious resource.

How you can help: Contact your legislators and ask them how they plan to take action to protect Minnesota’s waters, communities, and ecosystems from exportation.

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