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A Deep Dive into Groundwater Governance

Carrie E. Jennings
July 15, 2021
irrigation minnesota

What do Midwesterners do in a drought like the one that some of our region is experiencing? Turn on the lawn sprinklers and irrigators? That is an approach of the water-rich when faced with brown grass or a compromised crop. It is distinctly different from the Western United States, where water use is curtailed during drought.

Ongoing research suggests that the Midwest’s general sense of water abundance has left questions of sustainable groundwater use largely unattended, that is, until groundwater makes the headlines.

Front-page crises include bottling plants setting up shop next to a city, radium in a municipal well, surface-water quality concerns that require a switch to groundwater, cumulative pumping impacts on a favorite lake or simply depletion of groundwater by a rapidly growing city. The nature and timing of these pressures has led to differing approaches to groundwater governance across the region with an uneven track record of financial support and success.

Researchers are now taking a deep dive into the differences and commonalities across five Great Lakes states from Minnesota to Ohio and the tribal nations in that geographic area in a 12-month, comparative assessment of groundwater governance.

suburbs groundwater
Rapidly growing suburbs rely on groundwater. Credit: Carrie E. Jennings

The intent is to understand the status quo and identify opportunities to promote sustainable, integrated and equitable management of groundwater. The Joyce Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit, is supporting this research as part of its focus on grants to protect groundwater.

The work is being led by Freshwater, a 51-year-old, Minnesota-based nonprofit with John Linc Stine, former commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, as executive director. Stine also is the immediate past chair of the Great Lakes Commission.

The interdisciplinary team includes researchers from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School; legal experts from Milwaukee-based consultancy Water 365; Mary Manydeeds, a hydrologist with the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, Midwest Office; Ann McCammon Soltis, director of the US Division of Intergovernmental Affairs; Jen Vanator, policy analyst and lakes program coordinator with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission; collaborators at the Harvard Kennedy School of Public Health and former Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler, now with the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District.

Researchers will review existing geological and legal frameworks and how they are used to manage groundwater. This information-gathering will be followed by interviews and surveys. Interviews with state agency leaders have mostly been completed; those with individuals holding tribal, regional, nonprofit and informal roles are ongoing. 

Preliminary results

Most states report that groundwater availability is a growing issue in specific regions, some of them spanning their boundaries. They may have a permit system to register high-volume pumpers but no way to actually restrict water use. Governments have convened water advisory boards populated by a variety of stakeholders; regional planning groups have emerged organically or been designated by state agencies.

However, most of those surveyed so far report uneven or scarce financial resources to sustain their efforts. Some are even basing their groundwater decisions on a very limited understanding of aquifer extent and properties.

Preliminary information from tribal environmental staff has identified potential impacts to groundwater from pipelines, mining and agricultural drainage. The capacity of sovereign tribal nations within this broad geographic area to deal with these issues varies greatly.

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community is a leader in Minnesota in approaches to sustainable groundwater management. The community has a wellhead protection area and robust water reuse program. Members also have considered the feasibility of enhancing recharge to their aquifer and now provide drinking water to a neighboring city. They are forming a Dakota communities collaborative on water issues. 

lakeville groundwater
Lakeville participated in the Southeast Metro workgroup, a subregional groundwater planning group facilitated by the Metropolitan Council in Minnesota. Credit: Carrie E. Jennings

Fundamental values about who has the right to use a shared resource -- or if it is even a resource to be exploited -- are at the root of the different approaches. The Great Lakes Compact was cited as being important in states with a significant portion of their area within the Great Lakes surface-water watershed, like Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio. It came up less in conversation with Minnesota and Illinois, where the divide is very close to the lake shore and little of the state lies within the Great Lakes surface-water watershed.

The interviews and our study of the networks of people working on groundwater will help identify leaders willing to share best practices and keys to success before the end of the project year in March 2022. The results of this outreach will be included in the final report to the Joyce Foundation.

Carrie E. Jennings

Carrie E. Jennings is the project lead and Freshwater’s research and policy director, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Jennings is a professional geologist and adjunct graduate faculty at the University of Minnesota Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. She began life in Indiana, grew up in Ohio, attended college in Illinois, graduate school in Minnesota, vacationed in Wisconsin and Michigan, and has swum in or sailed on all of the Great Lakes.

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