Minnesota Supreme Court rules on lawsuit alleging DNR did not adequately protect White Bear Lake

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that an appeals court misunderstood the contention from a group who sued the Minnesota DNR for abdicating is responsibility to protect the waters of White Bear Lake.

The Supreme Court announced Wednesday that it affirmed one part of the appeals court’s ruling, but reversed another and remanded the court to take up the decision once again.

White Bear Lake’s water levels reached historic lows in the early 2010s, prompting two associations and the city of White Bear Lake to sue the DNR alleging “mismanagement of the groundwater-appropriation permitting process.”

In 2013, White Bear Lake’s lowest-ever water level was recorded at 918.84 feet. The White Bear Lake Restoration Association and the White Bear Lake Homeowners’ Association say the lake was polluted and impaired by groundwater pumping from the Prairie du Chien and Jordan aquifers. The lawsuit states that the Lake and aquifers are connected through groundwater and the aquifer affects White Bear Lake’s water levels.

The aquifers provide much of the drinking water for the Twin Cities metropolitan area, which annual withdrawals more than doubling from 1.873 million gallons in 1980 to 4.557 million gallons in 2007.

White Bear Lake Restoration Association says the DNR “mismanaged” the permitting process that allowed the groundwater to be withdrawn.

In 2018, 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.”

However, the Supreme Court says the appeal’s court misunderstood the White Bear Lake Homeowners’ Association’s contention that the DNR allowed White Bear Lake to degrade by “abdicating its duties as trustee to manage groundwater and surface water levels.”

The Supreme Court said the Homeowners’ Association did not allege that groundwater is held in the public trust or that the doctrine should be extended to include it. The decision was ultimately affirmed by the Supreme Court, but on different grounds.