DNR Taking Comments on Lutsen Water Use

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is seeking public comments on a controversial proposal to temporarily permit the Lutsen Mountains ski resort to continue to draw water from the Poplar River despite low flow in the river.

The resort uses the water for its snowmaking operations.  Normally, pumping operations would be discontinued due to the river’s low flow, but the DNR is authorized by statute to allow exceptions under unique circumstances.

Lutsen Mountains has used Polar River water to frost its slopes since the mid-1960s, and has a history of drawing more water than originally permitted to do.  The ski resort obtained a permit in 1964 to draw up to 12.5 million gallons of water a year from the river, a designated trout stream. DNR documents show that water use reached 60 million gallons in 2001 and topped 100 million gallons in 2010. Lutsen Mountains officials say the water use was vital for meeting the demands of its skiers, and add they don’t believe it impacts fish in the river.

The DNR has said drawing that amount of water does impact fish in the river, but admits to previously turning its back on violations of the 1964 permit. The agency admitted that the economic impact of the ski resort on the North Shore region prompted its reluctance to cite Lutsen Mountains for the violations. The DNR tried to persuade Lutsen Mountains to take water from Lake Superior instead of the Poplar River, but was told the plan was too expensive.

This year, the Minnesota Legislature authorized the Lutsen Mountain Corporation (LMC) to take up to 150 million gallons of water from the Poplar River for snowmaking this fall, but included a provision that suspends the water appropriation if river flows fall below 15 cubic feet per second for more than five consecutive days. The flow in the river has been at or near that threshold for weeks. A separate provision of Minnesota statutes, however, authorizes the DNR to issue a permit beyond what is normally allowed if there is “just cause.”

In this case, the DNR claims there is just cause to issue Lutsen Mountains a permit based on the potential economic impacts to the local community, the low numbers of trout present in the affected reach of river, and the likelihood that some trout mortality will occur, whether Lutsen Mountains temporarily appropriates water or not.

“The most important aspect of this issue is that the Poplar River is not a long-term sustainable source of water for LMC,” DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said in a media release. “We need concurrence from LMC and key legislators that they are committed to finding an alternate source of water for snowmaking – probably Lake Superior – within three years to prevent a reoccurrence of this very difficult situation.”

According to the DNR, the average flow for the Poplar River in November is 86 cubic feet per second. It has been hovering around 20 cubic feet per second for some time, and will likely drop significantly during winter, when limited water drains into the river.

The draft permit and a FAQ with additional background information is available HERE.

The public may submit comments from Oct. 26 through Nov. 4 at publiccomment.dnr@state.mn.us.

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