Judge reverses ruling on White Bear Lake water levels

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has overturned a victory for White Bear Lake residents in their lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources over the lake’s water level and the conservation of groundwater.

Low water levels have been a problem for Whiter Bear Lake for more than a decade. Two community groups – the White Bear Lake Restoration Association and White Bear Lake Homeowners’ Association – sued the DNR, claiming the agency allowed too much groundwater to be used by neighboring communities, which lowered lake levels. The DNR claimed the fluctuations are natural.

Last year, a Ramsey County District Court judge ruled the DNR failed to protect the lake and its aquifer, and should have done a better job of managing the use of area wells in order to protect the lake's water level.

The judge ordered the DNR to stop issuing any more well permits within five miles of White Bear Lake until it is certain the pumping is sustainable.

The DNR appealed, arguing the order would put unnecessary burdens on a half-million residents and halt important development near the lake, stalling road and utility improvements, business growth and residential construction. The DNR said some changes may be needed, but the district court order goes beyond what is necessary.

At issue before the Appeals Court was the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act and the "public trust" doctrine.  

Judge John Rodenberg reversed the district court’s decision, ruling the DNR did not violate MERA, but conceded the DNR’s permitting process is “inadequate to protect White Bear Lake.” The judge also ruled the DNR did not violate the "public trust" doctrine in its issuing of groundwater pumping permits, because “Minnesota has never applied the public-trust doctrine to groundwater beyond the confines of the boundaries of a lake and its bed.”

A lawyer representing the community groups told FOX 9 they intend to petition the Minnesota Supreme Court.

“This is water policy that’s going to affect future generations, and, frankly, something the Supreme Court should be interested in…concerning those issues. We’re hopeful they will be,” said attorney Katie Crosby Lehmann.