ELKO NEW MARKET, Minn. — The fate of a new water bottling plant now rests with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which will review the city's plan for its impact on the aquifer beneath the surface.
California-based Niagara Bottling proposes to set up operations in the city's industrial park, being developed by Ryan Companies, and purchase up to 310 million gallons of water per year from the city of Elko New Market.
Mayor Joe Julius sees development of the industrial park as the key to growth in the city, and an opportunity to lower water costs for current residents.
"Once that park fills up, not only are we going to have a nice boost to our tax base, we are going to start having some daytime workforce to our town, which has been a big inhibitor for us getting things like a grocery store, getting more restaurants to come to town," Mayor Julius told KARE.
The city had to issue bonds in the past ten years to build a new water treatment plant that would meet the new standards for radium. The cost of that new plant has been passed along to the city's water customers.
"We have the highest water rates in the state, and this is going to allow us to start making a meaningful dent in those water rates as Niagara comes on and starts using water from us," Julius said. "They’re going to pay the equivalent of 1,500 households, which is basically how many households we have. Once that happens, we’ll have more users on the system, taking out a big chunk of the debt that’s owed on it."
The plan has sparked controversy and led to packed and contentious city council meetings. One can still find "No Niagara" signs at various spots around the city of 5,000.
Some of the resistance is based on environmental concerns, while others resent the idea of Minnesota's water being extracted for sale in drier parts of the nation.
"Pulling this much water out could very well create a cone of depression that changes the way the groundwater flows to the river, to the calcareous fens and to local wells," Janelle Kuznia, who lives within a half mile of the proposed plant, told KARE.
"These natural resources belong to every person in this state, and I don’t think a for-profit company should be able to tap our aquifers and sell it for profit," Kuznia said.
The mayor said the city's hydrology consultant is confident there's enough water in the aquifers to handle the Niagara project, considering the city's population is expected to grow to 70,000 eventually.
"I appreciate those concerns. I really do because they come from passion and they come from a good place," Julius remarked. "In my opinion, that’s not up to us. We’re not experts on hydrology. We’re not experts on the aquifers. We rely on our experts."
Opponents have also raised issues with the sheer volume of plastic bottles that will be produced to be filled at the plant, considering how much plastic doesn't end up being recycled.
"Manufacturing plastic bottles is a legal business, and we don’t have the right as a city to discriminate against a business for what they do," Julius said. "We have to in the state of Minnesota allow them."
Kuznia said local governments should not feel powerless when it comes to protecting the environment and preserving natural resources.
"Where do we start? If we don’t start in the city, in our local communities, in each citizen taking responsibility for the environment, where do we start?" Kuznia asked. "I feel that the city council is not listening to the majority of the population."