The MNDNR recently announced it plans to give Lutsen Mountains Corporation more special treatment and permit it to nearly drain the Poplar River just when the eggs of fall spawning “coaster” and stream resident brook trout lie incubating in the river gravel. Read on to learn how you can voice your strong objections to this needless destruction of a public resource.
Earlier this year Lutsen Mountains Corporation made a legislative end run around state protections for public waters, which was reported in earlier mntu blog postings and in the media. LMC ultimately succeeded in having a special law written for it to remove up to 150 million gallons per year from the Poplar River, an important North Shore trout and steelhead fishery. The one protection which Minnesota Trout Unlimited helped get into the law was a minimum flow protection of 15 cubic feet per second (“cfs”). While this flow level is not high enough to prevent substantial impacts to trout and other aquatic life during the winter months, it arguably provides enough protection to prevent wholesale destruction of populations.
On Wednesday it was revealed that Lutsen is seeking more special favors, and the DNR now plans to throw aside even this minimal protection to accommodate LMC’s desires. The proposed permit would allow Lutsen to draw done the base flow of Poplar River to just 5 cfs, precisely when the trout population is most stressed by unusually low river levels this fall. The public must express its objections by Friday November 4th.
The DNR news release and proposed permit can be found on the DNR’s website at http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/input/issues/poplar_river/index.html Be advised that the ‘frequently asked questions” document contains many inaccuracies and unsubstantiated assumptions.
How to submit public comments for the record:
Please take a few minutes to convey your concerns over the DNR sweeping aside the most minimal protections for our public resources. Commits should be submitted no later than Friday Nov. 4, 2011 to: email@example.com.
We encourage you to also send comments to Governor Dayton and DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, who need to hear a more balanced description of the situation.
How to contact the Governor:
Follow this link to see options for contacting Governor Mark Dayton:
Toll Free: 800-657-3717
How to contact the MNDNR:
Landwehr, Tom (DNR) firstname.lastname@example.org
St. Paul central office switchboard:
Some basic points you could make:
- You are strongly opposed to the DNR abandoning the most minimal protections for aquatic life and issuing yet another special exemption.
- This year’s low river levels were very foreseeable, yet for the past decade Lutsen has resisted the inevitable switch to Lake Superior water and instead chosen to spend millions of dollars on non-essential expansions and improvements.
- If the proposed permit is issued it must contain as a written condition a timetable for Lutsen to take concrete steps toward installing a pipeline from Lake Superior.
- If the proposed permit is issued it should be restricted to the months of November and December 2011, the time period which Lutsen has repeatedly stated is the key snowmaking season, during which roughly 75% of it is made.
Background information and basic observations
On Monday MNTU will post a more thorough analysis of the proposed permit on its website: http://www.mntu.org/ However, below is some important factual information and observations to assist you in formulating your own comments this weekend.
Why raiding water from a stream during low, wintertime flows is so devastating.
The Poplar River is one of the best trout streams in northern Minnesota, that is until it reaches the point where Lutsen Mountains Corporation has been removing large quantities of water for the past decade. The river still supports a wild brook trout fishery, including a spawning population of unique “coaster” brook trout in the lowest reach. Unlike the groundwater rich streams of Southeast Minnesota, the Poplar River is almost entirely dependent upon surface water runoff, lacks any significant amount of stable, relatively warm (in winter), groundwater, and is ice covered in winter. Very low water levels and cold air temperatures combine to make winter, especially January and February, the critical time for trout and other aquatic life. High spring flows and average annual flows cannot help trout survive this winter population bottleneck.
Brook trout are fall spawners and their eggs incubate in the stream gravel during the winter months. Water withdrawals from the already low winter base flows aggravate tough conditions for eggs, juveniles and adults. Flowing water is needed in order to incubate trout eggs, enable young-of-year trout to survive, and maintain invertebrate (insect) production. As flows shrink the riffles and glides where eggs are located, young trout overwinter, and insects hide begin to dry up and freeze. Eggs, small trout and insects (fish food) all perish. Shallow riffles gradually freeze solid and often force remaining water to begin running over the ice, further reducing water levels under the ice.
The amount of ice free habitat in remaining pools shrinks with diminished flows, raising the likelihood of anchor ice forming. This layer of ice attaches to the stream bottom and other cover and kills the juvenile trout and insects in its path. If water levels get too low and there is little snow cover to insulate the water (the very conditions under which LMC is mostly likely to rob the stream of its water) the stream could freeze to the bottom in most remaining pools. Virtually all aquatic life would be wiped out, yet things may appear fine as water flows on top of this ice. If water removals contribute to two or three years of such bad conditions in short order the brook trout fishery could be exterminated. Since high spring flows flush out all direct evidence of winter fish kills, the only evidence would be in lower population levels and size structure as compared to river sections above the pump intakes. Not surprisingly, while trout populations above Lutsen’s pump are very robust, they are much lower in the reaches impacted by increasingly heavy pumping.
Minnesota water law prohibiting the taking of trout water
Biologists and ecologists now understand that any removal of surface waters from a coldwater ecosystem has detrimental impacts on the trout fishery and other aquatic life, despite the fact that the precise impact from each is very difficult to precisely quantify. In 1977 limits were established for surface water resources to protect in-stream uses and all withdrawals (“appropriations”) from trout streams were prohibited. While this restriction is based upon sound science, its enactment undoubtedly stems, in part, from the public’s recognition of the fact that Minnesota’s remaining trout streams are among the best, most ecologically intact aquatic systems remaining in our state. Minnesota’s remaining trout streams represent just six percent of the State’s streams and rivers. To avoid the incremental degradation and disappearance (“death by a thousand cuts”) of these remaining high quality public resources, the law very wisely prohibits the piecemeal taking of the water which is their lifeblood. The DNR should more forcefully defend these unique watersheds.
A “crisis” of LMC’s own making?
In 1964 LMC obtained a permit to pump 0.55 cfs from the Poplar River. In the 1980s LMC was sold to its current owners and the DNR increased the permitted withdrawal to 12.6 million gallons per year, with a maximum rate of approximately 4.1 cfs. This relatively small use aroused little notice. Based upon annual reports submitted by LMC, LMC appears to have complied with the permit restrictions until 2001.
In 2001 LMC’s withdrawals from Poplar River jumped nearly fivefold, to 60 million gallons. The MNDNR informed LMC that all withdrawals beyond 12.6 million gallons were not covered by the permit and LMC would not be given a permit for larger withdrawals. The DNR began working with them in good faith to help them switch to an alternate source. Believing that LMC was working to that same end, the DNR allowed LMC to continue using Poplar River water as an interim measure only. Thus for nearly ten years LMC has known it must cease these excessive withdrawals and build a pipeline from Lake Superior, but instead it has chosen to spend millions of dollars on expanding runs and other non-essential improvements. During the last legislative session the public debate became centered on how many years (2, 3 or 5) LMC might take to make the shift from Poplar River water to Lake Superior water, not whether the shift was inevitable. LMC has witnessed several natural cycles of low water years and should have planned ahead, yet it apparently wasted the 2011 construction season, again taking no concrete steps toward constructing a pipeline. The public should not be forced to pay for LMC’s choice to ignore the inevitable and spend millions elsewhere.
The DNR should hold Lutsen to its promise regarding the current permit.
In conjunction with the issuance of the current permit to Lutsen on October 4, 2011, an officer of Lutsen Mountain Corporation stated in writing:
I hereby understand that if the referenced permit is issued, I may be required to suspend appropriation of water during periods of low water to maintain a minimum flow in the watershed. Furthermore, I agree to suspend my appropriation and withstand the results of no appropriation from the above named resource should I be directed to by the Department of Natural Resources . . .
The DNR should hold them to their promise to “withstand the results of no appropriation” from the Poplar River and not issue yet another special permit.
Unsubstantiated and unchallenged claims.
The DNR, as well as much of the media, appears to have fallen into the trap of accepting without question many assumptions and assertions made by LMC. Assumptions akin to “skiers won’t come to Lutsen unless we make more and more artificial snow”, “snowmaking is essential to operating a profitable winter sports facility”, “LMC needs to take water from the Poplar River” and “skiers will refuse to pay for a small surcharge for want they want” are unsubstantiated and we believe incorrect. Claims of economic hardship are likewise unsubstantiated and any potential decline in future business is just as likely to be due to general economic conditions.
Creative solutions are available to LMC.
LMC can, and hopefully has begun, to pursue several options to help pay for its water use, including:
- Partnering with the golf course to upgrade and use their pipeline from the Lake Superior. The golf course switched to Lake Superior water several years ago and uses water only during the summer months. LMC could share the costs of upgrading capacity in exchange for use of that portion of the pipeline.
- Adding a $3 to $5 snowmaking surcharge to lift tickets until the pipeline is paid for.
- Partnering with other businesses and prospective businesses located near the top of the hill to share construction and pumping costs.
LMC needs some encouragement.
MNTU believes LMC is an important part of the local economy and wants to help it succeed. LMC needs your encouragement to speed up its switch off of Poplar River water. On October 3rd LMC convened a meeting to tell the conservation and environmental communities of their progress. LMC explained how it had hired yet another lobbyist to conduct a public relations campaign, and hired consultants in an attempt to design “studies” which might justify past conduct. No mention was made of efforts or intentions to secure an alternate water supply. MNTU suggested to LMC that it had missed the legislative message that it must cease taking Poplar River soon, and we offered to work with LMC to hasten the switch to another source. The statements issued by LMC this week suggest that it has had a welcome change of heart.
However, Lutsen Mountain Corporation needs to hear from the public that it must firm up this commitment, and accept a concrete timetable for construction in 2012, and 2013 if needed.
You might also encourage them to stop hiring lobbyists and start hiring engineers and contractors. If you are a skier, let them know that you are more than willing to pay your own way, rather than allowing the unnecessarily destroying a public resource. Tell them a $3 to $5 snowmaking surcharge on your lift ticket to cover your water use is not a big deal, and pales in comparison to the full costs of a skiing outing.
How to the proposed permit can be improved.
While MNTU opposes the issuance of the another special permit, if the DNR does issue the proposed permit it should first make at least these two important changes:
(1) A timetable for concrete steps toward the goal of securing an alternate water supply must be inserted as a condition of the permit. Commissioner Landwehr noted that, “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.” But rather than merely express this wish, the DNR can make such a commitment a condition for LMC obtaining this special permit. A timetable for taking the typical steps in implementing a construction project can be included in the permit. The DNR has already been working closely with LMC to find an alternate water source for nearly ten years. What is needed now is not more talk, but a construction timetable and action by LMC. The permit can and should be a vehicle to obtain these.
(2) The temporary permit should expire on December 31, 2011. Lutsen has repeatedly stated that the time period during which it really wants to make artificial snow, and indeed when approximately 75% of its annual snowmaking is typically done, is during November and December. January to March is likely the most critical time period for the fishery, with the greatest danger of complete or nearly complete freeze out. Consequently, the temporary permit should not extend past the peak snowmaking season and into January 2012 or beyond.