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Elko New Market latest Minnesota city to debate transfer, sale of groundwater

Niagara Bottling, based in California, has proposed a 425,000-square-foot facility to bottle and sell water from Elko New Market's Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer.

ELKO NEW MARKET, Minn. — The latest conversation in a decades-long debate to remove water from Minnesota and transfer it across state lines has now been put before the residents of Elko New Market (ENM).

Niagara Bottling, a California-based beverage manufacturer, has proposed a 425,000-square-foot facility in the city's existing I-35 Industrial Park, which would give the company access to the region's Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer in order to bottle and distribute water to retailers throughout the country. Currently, the nearly 5,000 people living in the city get their water from three wells that tap the aquifer. 

According to the city, Niagara reviewed several sites across the country before landing on Elko New Market as its preferred location to build the facility. And in September 2022, formal land use applications were submitted to the city, making the proposal public.

City officials say the facility would ramp up the local economy for years to come with job creation, and increase property tax revenue for the city — potentially lessening the burden on residential properties — and utility revenue. 

Some residents of Elko New Market are pushing back.

An outline of the ENM City Council meeting agenda for Dec. 15 contains around 70 pages of public comments, ranging from entirely opposing the project to weighing its impacts on the community and environment to supporting the idea it would stimulate the local economy.

"The safety of our health and environment is in your hands. Choose to limit the use of plastic bottles, choose to say NO to Niagara Bottling Company, for even a small contribution can lead to a large effect." - Emily Archambault, New Prague High School Student and Elko New Market resident

"Given the climate changes we have seen in recent years, I have grave concerns that approving this project would have dire consequences for our community, particularly for homeowners who rely on a well for their water source. Going beyond the concerns for water availability, there is the threat to our environment from the plastics used in the bottling process. We must recognize the environmental impact of single‐use plastics, and do our part to move away from their use." - Sherri Taggart

"The development of this plant is hopefully just the beginning in a series of businesses that will want to see Elko New Market as home based on its location and workforce." - Michael Beard, Chair Scott County Board of Commissioners

"With so much climate change uncertainty and little actual economic benefit for ENM (particularly in proportion to the millions that Niagara stands to profit from this deal), it is far too risky to give a private California company these water rights in perpetuity. Your decisions will have longstanding consequences for decades to come. Our water resources belong to the community." - Debra Pexa

According to a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), to support the project, the city has submitted a request to increase its water use by 230 million gallons per year — nearly tripling its current output — saying it's necessary for the city's "future growth," in addition to supplying the proposed Niagara facility. 

But over the last few days, the DNR said it has received a citizen's petition urging state officials to conduct more research and prepare an Environmental Assessment worksheet for the project, which would outline the project's potential environmental impacts. 

The DNR says the agency cannot approve the city's request for increased water production until the petition is either dismissed or an environmental assessment has been completed. Further, the DNR says its analysis of the proposal will determine whether the aquifer can provide the requested amount of water and if the increase can be deemed sustainable overall.

ENM residents say they're also concerned with how the project could affect residential water rates, and the possibility that the company will diminish the community's water resource in order to gain a profit.

“Given the severe drought that has plagued our city and the rest of the country, it would be unwise to allow a company to drain our water supply for profit. The long-term impacts of this plant are unimaginable.” - Justin Reinke

"And Niagara getting to pay less than me for water is a crime!!!” - Dale Carlson 

It is worth noting that city officials say it's still unclear how Niagara's business might affect citizens' water rates.

The idea to move large quantities of Minnesota's groundwater throughout thirstier parts of the U.S. is not a new one. In 2019, Water Train, a company that claims to "deliver excess water from different areas in our country," partnered with Progressive Rail, a railroad company in Dakota County, and applied to pump 500 million gallons of water a year out of the Mount Simon-Hinckley Aquifer to be shipped by rail to paying customers in need out west. 

The momentum to do so was stopped by 1989's Minnesota Groundwater Protection Act, which among other regulations, eliminated some types of Mount Simon-Hinckley Aquifer use. The statute subsequently helped to promote water conservation, stating new wells used in conjunction with the aquifer would only be permitted if the water is for drinking, and only if there are no other practical or feasible alternatives for drinking water. 

More recently, the state also voted to ban the bulk transport and/or sale of water to places more than 50 miles from where it was collected, or more than 100 miles from its source if it’s being used exclusively for drinking water. However, in the case of Niagara's proposal, the DNR says this law does not apply.

"The recently passed law limiting the bulk sale or transfer of water does not apply to a commercial facility that is bottling water for individual use," said Randall Doneen, a manager who helps handle regulation with the DNR. "This is not 'bulk' sale or transfer."

In the Elko New Market City Council meeting Thursday night, city officials met face-to-face with concerned members of the public, who echoed they're troubled by the possibility of Niagara's project coming to fruition.  

"We're really concerned about the use of a public resource like water, that some people think is an unlimited bottomless pit. Water is not an unlimited resource, and all the people in this area should be very concerned," said Jonathan Carlson, who lives near the site.

Melissa Lenhardt has lived in Elko New Market for 10 years.

"I want them to listen to all of us; think about what we're saying. I haven't heard of any citizens that are for this. We want to have a say in this. We want to be able to keep the rights to our water and have water to drink for years to come. The water should belong to the people. It shouldn't belong to profit companies," she said.

On the other side of the discussion, Elko New Market senior planner Renee Christianson reiterated the city's position during a presentation, outlining the possible benefits that could be reaped by the community should the project proceed.

"Diversification of the city’s tax base; local employment opportunities; a catalyst for other commercial industrial development — gets the industrial park off the ground," she said.

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