A California company's plan to open a major bottling plant in the south metro has run into opposition from a group of residents, who say a heavy water user might deplete the aquifer that supplies drinking water to much of southern Minnesota.
Niagara Bottling, which sells bottled water to Walmart and Costco, would immediately become one of the biggest commercial water users in Scott County. It plans to eventually draw 310 million gallons of water a year from the Prairie Du Chien-Jordan aquifer and then bottle, ship and sell it across the country. That would more than triple the total public water use in Elko New Market, which drew 125 million gallons last year.
Janelle Kuznia lives less than a mile from the proposed plant and uses a private well.
"Ours could dry up, or we might have to dig a deeper well," she said. "I don't know what will happen. There have been no good studies done."
The city will hold a public hearing on the project Thursday night.
A railway sparked similar fears in neighboring Dakota County in 2019, when it proposed drilling wells to pump and ship 500 million gallons of water a year out of the state. That proposal was quickly nixed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Unlike that project, Niagara Bottling would hook up to the city's public water line. The company has opened similarly-sized plants in New Mexico, Texas, Michigan and Wisconsin in recent years.
It would create 59 full time jobs, with pay averaging between $50,000 to $60,000, according to the city. The 425,000-square-foot facility would cost $125 million to build and construction could start as soon as April. Company representatives didn't respond to phone calls and emails seeking an interview.
City leaders hope the plant will spark development in a new industrial park just off Interstate 35. Niagara Bottling would be the first facility to build on the site, said Tom Terry, city administrator.
To accommodate the facility and population growth, the city is seeking an increase from the 135 million gallons of water the DNR currently permits it to pump from the aquifer each year.
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Elko New Market is in one of the metro's fastest growing areas. Officials expect its population, currently under 5,000, to double by 2040 and to someday reach as high as 80,000.
The city isn't concerned about the aquifer's ability to handle the additional demand. Even with the facility, Elko New Market would be pumping a small fraction of what many of its neighbors draw. Lakeville, with a population of 70,000, used nearly 3 billion gallons last year, much of it from the same aquifer.
Terry said he is confident the project won't affect neighboring private wells. The city's long-term growth plans were reviewed by the DNR and the Metropolitan Council. No agency has raised concerns about the aquifer's ability to handle Elko New Market's growth, he said.
"The DNR has a number of processes in place to help it monitor and protect the aquifer going forward," he said.
Residents petitioned the DNR to take a closer look. The agency has six weeks to decide whether to require the city to conduct an environmental assessment, which would determine what the additional pumping would mean for the aquifer and private wells as well as lakes and rivers.
The proposal seems to go far beyond what the city had previously anticipated in its water plan for the next decade, said Randall Doneen, a section manager for the DNR.
"For us to consider it, they will have to amend their water supply plan to make sure they can meet the type of growth they're envisioning," he said.
City Council member Josh Berg said Ryan Companies, the industrial area's developer, "has been trying to get someone in there" for at least eight years.
"It's already drinkable water that would come out of our faucets," he said. "They're not adding anything back into the environment, either."
Berg said he's most excited that the plant will help defray the high cost of water in the city by adding to the tax base. Elko New Market opened a large water treatment plant in 2016, but its cost is currently spread out over only 1,400 households.
"You'll hear that it's a great small town, community feel ... but the water's so damn expensive," he said.
Berg also said he's thrilled at how many residents are asking questions about the project and said their concerns are "absolutely something we have to think about."
His role is to "take the emotion out of it" and figure out whether the plant fits with the city's comprehensive plan and checks all the boxes regarding environmental safeguards, he said.
The average Minnesotan uses about 52 gallons of water a day, according to the DNR. By that metric, the plant will draw as much water as about 16,000 people.
Some residents support the proposal. Insurance agency owner Tim Sadusky said the additional taxes and Niagara's large water bill could help the city replace its infrastructure as it ages.
"I view this as a revenue-generating space," he said.
But Tim Zweber, who runs an organic dairy farm in town, has been concerned about water quantity and quality since he had to dig a deeper well several years ago to get the water he needed. He's one of the people petitioning for an environmental assessment.
A water bottling plant is "considerably different" than a typical business in an industrial park because it is extracting resources, he said.
He said he wants his kids to be able to farm the land if they want. "Part of being able to farm is, you know, having water," he said.
Correction: Earlier versions of this story misstated the increase in Elko New Market’s public water usage, if the plant becomes operational.
Greg Stanley is an environmental reporter for the Star Tribune. He has previously covered water issues, development and politics in Florida’s Everglades and in northern Illinois.
[email protected] 612-673-4882 greggstanley
Erin Adler is a suburban reporter covering Dakota and Scott counties for the Star Tribune, working breaking news shifts on Sundays. She previously spent three years covering K-12 education in the south metro and five months covering Carver County.
[email protected] 612-673-1781 erinStrib