The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has decided the Pineland Sands Aquifer, which runs beneath the Ponsford, Osage and Park Rapids area, is too sensitive to ignore any longer, and has created a groundwater management area.

The Straight River Groundwater Management Area includes parts of southern Clearwater, northeast Becker, southwest Hubbard and northwest Wadena counties.

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It includes Bad Medicine Lake, Many Point Lake, Shell Lake and Two Inlets Lake in Becker County, as well as Fish Hook Lake and Long Lake near Park Rapids, and includes the Straight River, Shell River and Fish Hook River. It covers all of Pine Point, Osage and Todd townships, and large portions of Shell Lake, Round Lake, Forest, Carsonville, Two Inlets, Green Valley and Straight River townships.

The DNR also approved a management plan, making it clear that it will no longer be business as usual in the area. New water permits will receive a close look, and even existing water permits may be canceled (following due process of law, of course) if the DNR decides that’s necessary to maintain a healthy water flow in the new groundwater management area.

The new DNR plan lays out five objectives with specific actions the DNR will take to ensure that use of groundwater remains sustainable within the area. The plan was developed over several years with the help of an internal DNR project team, an advisory team of external stakeholders, and additional public review and discussion.

“With more than 10,000 lakes, thousands of miles of rivers and streams, and many thousands of acres of wetlands, it might be natural to think that our water is essentially unlimited,” said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr. “But in some parts of the state, the unseen, underground aquifers that make up our groundwater resources are under pressure to meet growing needs for domestic water supplies, irrigation, industrial and other uses.”

He added that those groundwater resources are interconnected with the lakes, streams and wetlands “that we value for commerce, recreation, and water supplies. Those surface waters also provide the habitat needed by many animals and plants. If we are not careful in how we use water, both economic development and ecosystems could be put at risk.”

The plan provides a framework within which the DNR will work with major water users, including municipalities and agricultural irrigators, to use groundwater sustainably. This cooperative effort will promote conservation, protect surface waters and water quality, improve the groundwater appropriations permitting process, and help resolve any conflicts that might arise among users.

This is one of three groundwater management areas being established around Minnesota. The other two are in the north and east metropolitan area and in the Bonanza Valley near Paynesville in west-central Minnesota.

The vulnerable Pineland Sands Aquifer in the Straight River area feeds trout streams, farm irrigation systems and provides drinking water to Park Rapids.

There have long been concerns about farm chemicals seeping into the shallow sandy soil in the area, but the turning point for the DNR came several years ago, when several thousand acres of woodland once logged by Potlatch Corp. were sold to R.D. Offutt Co. of Fargo, the nation's largest potato grower. The trees were cleared to make space for potatoes, a crop that thrives in sandy soil with the help of irrigation.

The massive change in the landscape, fears of groundwater overuse, the risk of nitrogen fertilizer contaminating the drinking water--all rang alarm bells at the DNR.

The agency worried that the loss of forest cover, along with the fertilizing and irrigating of crops in sandy, permeable soil, would hurt the Pineland Sands Aquifer, which is directly connected to lakes, streams and wetlands.

The Straight River Groundwater Management Area is the result of that concern. More information, including plans and maps for the Straight River Groundwater Management Area, can be found at www.dnr.state.mn.us/gwmp/area-sr.html.