Who owns the water?

This has been an interesting month in our small town of Elko New Market, Minnesota.
We are located 30 minutes south of Minneapolis on Interstate 35. To call it a small town is a bit of a stretch, or at least it feels that way if you lived here when it was a farming community of 250 people before it became a suburb with a population around 3,000.
Either way, small town is how the residents view our community. Every time a new project or development in the town is brought up for approval by the city council, the civically minded assess and argue whether the change will cause the town to stop feeling small. I suppose the day people quit caring about what happens in the town as a whole and worry about their specific neighborhood is when it has lost the small-town feel, but it seems we’re safe for now as the whole township, as well as the city, is talking.
A little over a month ago, members of the community found out a local developer submitted a proposal for a large water bottling plant. If approved, it will be the first industrial business to be sited in the area that has been theoretically the town’s industrial park for a couple decades.
Due to the way these things are handled, many people in town felt rather taken off guard to not know about the plans until only a little over a month before the city council either approves the permit or it is automatically approved at the 60-day limit.
I say the town has to approve or it will automatically be approved because there aren’t that many boxes to check in this town to meet the minimal criteria to build here, and the developer and bottling company have checked them all.
Some people are upset because it will be built by their homes, some are concerned about the effect of plastic bottles on the environment, some people don’t want any more traffic on our inadequate freeway interchange, and others, myself included, are concerned about the effects of tripling the draw on the local aquifer with one business.
Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes and a whole lot of swamps, rivers and streams to boot. Obviously, we aren’t like the West where the access to water that comes with land purchases is often more valuable than the land itself. That said, water is a resource that, while renewable, is not infinitely extractible without consequences. When people resettled this area – I say resettled because if we’re being honest the Native Americans settled it before us – there was a seemingly endless supply of trees which took considerably less time than expected to log off. The trees are growing back and aquifers refill, but the process, like seemingly all natural processes, takes time.
Our family has joined with a large number of people in the township and city to express our concerns with allowing a company based in California to move in and profit off of bottling a resource we all depend on.
It’s been an interesting experience in civic engagement and grassroots organization that I’ve not seen in our town before. Through a lot of conversations with people around this topic, I have continually bumped on the question of who owns the water all around us and how to value that resource.
The water gets to the aquifer by filtering down through the soil. Farmers are the biggest owners of the land which provides that ecological service, yet beyond using the water for irrigation in some areas, we don’t profit off that service. The Department of Natural Resources issues the permits that allow people to pump from the aquifer, so I guess one could say the government owns it; although other than stopping people from drawing too much water in an area, they don’t stop anyone from utilizing the resource. I have yet to come up with an answer and maybe never will. Hopefully it won’t matter, but looking West, I have my doubts.
Time to finish this coffee and get back outside to haul some manure and feed cows. Until next time, keep living the dream and maybe take advantage of all that water we have around here by doing a little ice fishing. I hear it is good relaxation to sit and stare at a hole waiting for a bobber to move. Then again, maybe it’s just the beer everyone brings with them.   
    Tim Zweber farms with his wife, Emily, their three children and his parents, Jon and Lisa, near Elko, Minnesota.


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