The Contentious Politics of Sustainability in Minnesota’s Groundwater Allocation Law

Authors: Afton Clarke-Sather*, University of Minnesota Duluth
Topics: Human-Environment Geography, Political Geography, Water Resources and Hydrology
Keywords: Sustainability, Groundwater, Water Resources, Legal Geographies, Political Ecology
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2018
Start / End Time: 4:40 PM / 6:20 PM
Room: Studio 10, Marriott, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In 2010, the Minnesota’s legislature passed what was in many ways a groundbreaking law. Minnesota’s groundwater appropriations law mandated that the Department of Natural Resources (MNDNR) consider sustainability when making groundwater allocation decisions. This moved Minnesota’s riparian appropriation doctrine based on a reasonable use standard to consider environmental concerns as well. The resulting mandate for considering sustainability when granting groundwater allocation permits was, however, vague and open for interpretation and contestation. Critically MNDNR was to insure the sustainability of both groundwater supply, over which it had direct control, and ground water quality, regulation of which was partitioned among three other state agencies. It was not until 2015 that MNDNR explicitly defined its groundwater sustainability standards based on specific thresholds for depletion of aquifers. Even these standards have faced fundamental challenges when applied to specific aquifers. The law envisioned that scientific certainty would make a groundwater sustainability mandate operable. However complex subsurface hydrology and connections between surface and ground water sources have made such scientific certainty elusive. Empirically this study draws upon documentary sources on the creation of Minnesota’s water sustainability law and 25 key informant interviews in the Bonanza Valley, an agricultural region in Western Minnesota that saw some of the earliest debates over the law’s implementation. This paper examines the politics of how a law that was intended to move groundwater allocation into the 21st century and been implemented in practice, and the struggles of defining sustainability in a legally operable way.

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