Published May 11, 2011, 12:00 AM

Anglers upset at Lutsen ski area’s water use

Lutsen Mountains ski resort could pump 2 million gallons of water per day out of the Poplar River to make snow for downhill skiers under legislation that passed the state Senate Finance Committee this week.

By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune

Lutsen Mountains ski resort could pump 2 million gallons of water per day out of the Poplar River to make snow for downhill skiers under legislation that passed the state Senate Finance Committee this week.

The legislation, opposed by conservation groups, would overrule any Department of Natural Resources regulations and permits regarding water use from the North Shore stream and allows the company to pump water no matter how low the river is at the time.

The provision, included in Senate File 1244, section 18, now goes to the full Senate for action. A similar bill is awaiting action by the full House any day.

John Lenczewski, executive director of Minnesota Trout Unlimited, said pumping that much water out of the river during low winter flows could “decimate” fish and other organisms in the lower miles of the river. Pools drawn down by pumping are more likely to freeze solid, leaving fish no place to survive, he said.

Instead of using river water, environmental groups and the DNR are pushing Lake Superior as a better source of snowmaking water for the ski hill. But the company said that would be too expensive.

Charles Skinner, co-owner of Lutsen Mountains Corp., said pumping river water for snowmaking has no effect on fish, noting it amounts to “5 percent of the water in the river at that time of year.”

Skinner said few trout can survive in the steep reaches of the river where it runs through the ski hill and that fish upstream of the water pumps, the best fishing area, aren’t affected.

“Traditionally the (ski hill area) is not an area where fish can live. There’s just too much water going through there, especially after rain events,” Skinner said, adding the company can’t afford “millions of dollars” to build a system to pump water uphill from Lake Superior. Without the river water, “the ski hill can’t survive. … No Midwest ski resort can survive without snowmaking water.”

Skinner said the company sought legislative action because the company’s unique water use “doesn’t fit well within the DNR’s current permitting toolbox.”

Steve Persons, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Grand Marais, said river freeze-out during low water in winter months, called anchor ice, could hurt the river’s populations of brook trout, rainbow trout, salmon and “coaster” brook trout that migrate into the river from Lake Superior.

“Allowing large appropriations of water during a low-flow period could increase the severity and frequency of anchor ice, and that certainly limits habitat for fish and the ecosystem they depend on,” Persons said.

He said the impact of past water use for snowmaking at Lutsen is unclear.

“We don’t have this situation with any other trout stream because it’s something we don’t allow,” Persons said.

The ski hill apparently is the only commercial entity in Minnesota allowed to pump water from a trout stream in winter, said Cliff Bentley, area hydrologist for the DNR in Two Harbors.

The ski resort first received a permit to use river water in 1964. Minnesota banned surface water withdrawals from all trout streams in 1977. But that rule allowed for exceptions, and in 1986 the DNR gave Lutsen Mountains Corp. a permit to use up to 13 million gallons each winter if there was enough stream flow at the time to support fish.

Lutsen Mountains Corp. began violating the permit in 2001, pumping between 60 and 107 million gallons each snowmaking season since. While DNR officials have known about the violations since 2002, the agency has taken no action against the company.

“We have been meeting with them intermittently to try to resolve the issue” while pushing Lake Superior as a better source of water, Bentley said. The nearby Superior National golf course, for example, which at first used Poplar River water for summer watering, now gets its water from Lake Superior.

“Lake Superior is a far more sustainable source. But they said that was unworkable for them from a financial standpoint,’’ Bentley said, noting the estimated cost of switching to Lake Superior as the water supply would be $1.5 million plus annual pumping costs. “We’re trying to balance between what is a very big economic player along the North Shore with the public’s resource. It’s very complicated.”

But Lenczewski said the issue is clear.

“Anglers should not be forced to sacrifice a public resource to subsidize a private business, especially when an alternate water supply is readily available,” Lenczewski said in a letter to conservation groups.