White Bear Lake Restoration Association, ex rel. State of Minnesota, Respondent,
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, et al., Appellants and White Bear Lake Homeowners' Association, Inc., ex rel. State of Minnesota, plaintiff intervenor, Respondent, and Town of White Bear, defendant intervenor, Co-Appellant, City of White Bear Lake, defendant intervenor, Co-Appellant.
County District Court File No. 62-CV-13-2414
Michael V. Ciresi, Katie Crosby Lehmann, Heather M. McElroy,
Ciresi Conlin LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Richard B.
Allyn, Robins Kaplan LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for
respondent White Bear Lake Restoration Association)
E. Starns, Daniel L. Scott, Micah J. Revell, Stinson Leonard
Street LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for respondent White Bear
Lake Homeowners' Association, Inc.)
Ellison, Attorney General, Oliver J. Larson, Colin P.
O'Donovan, Stacey W. Person, Assistant Attorneys General,
St. Paul, Minnesota (for appellant Minnesota Department of
D. Lemmons, Patrick J. Kelly, Kelly & Lemmons, P.A., St.
Paul, Minnesota (for co-appellant Town of White Bear)
A. Mills, Greene Espel PLLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for
co-appellant City of White Bear Lake)
L. Land, David L. Sienko, LeVander, Gillen & Miller P.A.,
South St. Paul, Minnesota (for amicus curiae City of
William P. Hefner, Jeremy Greenhouse, The Environmental Law
Group, Ltd., Mendota Heights, Minnesota; and Lloyd W. Grooms,
St. Paul, Minnesota (for amicus curiae Minnesota Chamber of
T. Anderson, Sarah J. Sonsalla, Kennedy & Graven,
Chartered, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for amicus curiae City of
K. Snyder, Johnson/Turner Legal, Forest Lake, Minnesota (for
amicus curiae City of Hugo)
M. Mattick, Campbell Knutson Professional Association, Eagan,
Minnesota (for amicus curiae North St. Paul)
L. Larson, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, St.
Paul, Minnesota (for amicus curiae Minnesota Center for
Colette Routel, Mehmet K. Konar-Steenberg, St. Paul,
Minnesota; and Bradley C. Karkkainen, Minneapolis, Minnesota
(attorneys pro se and amici curiae)
Considered and decided by Rodenberg, Presiding Judge; Reilly,
Judge; and Bratvold, Judge.
a complaint alleging violations of the Minnesota
Environmental Rights Act (MERA) relates to conduct undertaken
pursuant to a permit issued by the Minnesota Department of
Natural Resources, the only available relief is under Minn.
Stat. § 116B.10 (2018), and the bar in Minn. Stat.
§ 116B.03 (2018) applies.
Minnesota, the common-law public-trust doctrine applies to
navigable waters and does not apply to groundwater
the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
(DNR) along with its commissioner of natural
resources, City of White Bear Lake, and Town of White Bear,
appeal from the district court's grant
of declaratory and injunctive relief to respondents White
Bear Lake Restoration Association and White Bear Lake
Homeowners' Association Inc. on respondents' claims
that the DNR violated MERA and the common-law public-trust
doctrine by making water-appropriation decisions that have
lowered the water level of White Bear Lake. Appellants
challenge the district court's application of Minn. Stat.
§ 116B.03 and the public-trust doctrine to
respondents' claims, and argue that the district court
was without jurisdiction to make orders concerning the
DNR's issuance of well permits. They also challenge the
district court's findings of fact and the scope of its
remedial order as unsupported by the record. We reverse and
Bear Lake (the lake) is a large lake lying within Ramsey and
Washington Counties. It has a surface area of between 2, 100
and 3, 100 acres, depending on its water level. It is a
closed-basin lake, meaning that it has no major natural
surface water inlets or outlets, such as rivers or streams.
The lake depends on groundwater and precipitation for water.
Because of this, and its relatively small watershed area,
significant water-level fluctuations occur. Since 1924, water
levels in the lake have ranged from 919.33 to 926.69 feet
above sea level.
lakes depend primarily on underlying groundwater levels for
lake water. Two bedrock aquifers, commonly referenced
together as the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer (the
aquifer), are located below the lake. The lake and the
aquifer are hydrologically connected, and the lake's water
levels are affected by groundwater pumping, among other
aquifer is a main source of drinking water for the
Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. While the cities of
Minneapolis and St. Paul are able to use surface water from
the Mississippi River for their domestic water supply, most
of the rest of the metropolitan area relies on groundwater
pumped from municipal and private wells. Multiple
high-capacity groundwater wells surround White Bear Lake,
providing domestic water supply to area communities.
and municipalities must first obtain a water-use permit from
the DNR before extracting groundwater for municipal use. The
DNR has authorized the pumping of groundwater from the
aquifer through groundwater-appropriation permits. The DNR is
responsible for issuing and amending
groundwater-appropriation permits, ensuring that permittees
comply with those permits, and taking action as needed when
groundwater permits negatively impact a natural resource.
White Bear Lake Restoration Association (the restoration
association) initiated this action in April 2013, seeking
declaratory and injunctive relief related to
groundwater-appropriation permits issued by the DNR. The only
defendants named in the summons and complaint were the DNR
and then-Commissioner Thomas J. Landwehr. The complaint
alleged that increased groundwater withdrawals under the
DNR's groundwater-appropriation permits from
high-capacity wells in the area of the lake had created and
accelerated declines in lake-water elevations due to the
DNR's failure to review and amend permits. The
restoration association alleged that the DNR had allowed the
lake's water levels to drop, and had violated MERA, Minn.
Stat. §§ 116B.01-.13 (2018). The restoration
association alleged that the resulting low water levels had
diminished the lake's value as a recreational,
historical, cultural, and aesthetic asset. The restoration
association further claimed that, due to the lake's low
water levels, noxious plant and animal species had increased,
businesses had experienced significant losses, a beach had
closed due to a dangerous drop-off created by the lower lake
level, and homeowners needed to extend docks hundreds of feet
to access the lake.
White Bear Lake Homeowners' Association (the
homeowners' association) intervened as a plaintiff,
alleging that the DNR had violated MERA and the common-law
public-trust doctrine. Its complaint alleged that the
increased groundwater appropriations authorized by the DNR
have materially and adversely affected the environment and
that White Bear Lake and the aquifer have been materially and
adversely impacted. Like the restoration association, the
homeowners' association claimed that the declining water
levels harmed native aquatic plants, exposed lakebeds,
reduced recreational boating activity, impaired swimming and
fishing, reduced access to the water for lakefront
homeowners, and negatively impacted the economy around the
their pleadings, respondents suggested that a potential
solution to increase the water level of White Bear Lake would
be to order the DNR to amend groundwater-appropriation
permits it had issued to municipalities. That remedy would
impact groundwater-appropriation permits held by cities and
municipalities who rely on the permits to supply water to
their residents. Appellants City of White Bear Lake and Town
of White Bear intervened as defendants. The DNR challenged
respondents' claims, arguing, among other things, that
those claims are not properly asserted under either Minn.
Stat. § 116B.03 or the common-law public-trust doctrine.
The DNR asserted that, instead, the available MERA relief was
under Minn. Stat. § 116B.10.
district court denied appellants' pretrial motions to
dismiss and for summary judgment, allowing respondents'
claims to proceed under Minn. Stat. § 116B.03 and the
public-trust doctrine. It rejected appellants' argument
that the only viable MERA claim in this circumstance would be
under Minn. Stat. § 116B.10, providing that persons may
initiate a civil action in district court for declaratory or
equitable relief "against the state or any agency or
instrumentality thereof where the nature of the action is a
challenge to . . .[a] permit promulgated or issued by the
state or any agency or instrumentality thereof for which the
applicable statutory appeal period has elapsed." Minn.
Stat. § 116B.10, subd. 1.
December 2014 to August 2016, the parties agreed to stay the
district-court case while they jointly supported a request to
the legislature to fund construction of systems to convert
the domestic water supply in certain communities in the
northeast metropolitan area from groundwater to surface-water
sources. The district court lifted the stay after the
legislature declined to fund the surface-water conversion.
case was tried to the district court. Multiple experts
testified for the associations and opined that the DNR's
groundwater-appropriation permits negatively impacted the
lake's water levels. Contrary evidence was produced by
appellants. The district court ultimately concluded that the
DNR did not properly manage its permitting process in light
of its knowledge that groundwater pumping affected the
lake's water levels. The district court determined that
the DNR knew, as early as 1998, that the
groundwater-appropriation permits it issued could have
significant effects on groundwater levels and ultimately on
the water levels of the lake. The district court found that
the DNR had failed to consider "regional or cumulative
impact" when reviewing permit requests and instead
issued and reviewed permits on a case-by-case basis.
district court concluded that respondents had properly
asserted their claims under Minn. Stat. § 116B.03, that
the lake and the aquifer are natural resources subject to
MERA protections, and that the lake and the aquifer have been
and will likely continue to be impaired by the DNR's
permitting conduct. The district court declared that the DNR,
through its actions and inaction in relation to
groundwater-appropriation permits in the vicinity of the
lake, had violated MERA, multiple provisions of the
state's water law, and the common-law public-trust
district court ordered injunctive relief that included
requiring the DNR to review and amend all
groundwater-appropriation permits within a five-mile radius
of the lake, require permittees to submit contingency plans
for conversion to surface-water supply, and impose a
residential irrigation ban when the water level of the lake
is below 923.5 feet (and continuing until the lake reaches
924 feet). The district court's order prohibited the DNR
from issuing any new groundwater-well permits and from
increasing appropriation amounts in existing
groundwater-appropriation permits within a five-mile radius
of the lake until it had fully complied with statutory
requirements. The order also enjoined the DNR from issuing
any groundwater-appropriation permits within that radius
unless and until it had sufficient data to understand the
impact of those appropriations on the lake and the aquifer.
These injunctions affect the groundwater permits not only of
the intervenors, but also of municipalities that are not
parties to this litigation.
the district court's order and judgment, the DNR moved
for an amended judgment, a new trial, and a stay of the
district court's order pending appeal. The district court
rejected the stay motion. Appellants appealed and sought
review of the stay order by this court. We remanded, and the
district court stayed parts of its order.
the district court err by determining that Minn. Stat. §
116B.03, subd. 1, applies to claims relating to DNR-issued
the district court err by concluding that the common-law
public-trust doctrine applies to groundwater in Minnesota?
appellants make nine arguments. They argue that the district
court erred by (1) allowing the action to proceed under Minn.
Stat. § 116B.03 instead of Minn. Stat. § 116B.10,
(2) misapplying the public-trust doctrine, (3) denying
summary judgment on the ground that respondents failed to
exhaust administrative remedies, (4) refusing to require
joinder of affected permit holders not parties to the case,
(5) interpreting MERA to require the DNR to reopen and amend
permits, (6) failing to give deference to the DNR's
permitting decisions, (7) violating separation-of-powers
principles, (8) requiring the DNR to amend existing permits
without holding administrative hearings, and (9) making
clearly erroneous factual findings. Because our resolution of
the first two arguments is dispositive, we do not reach the
When a complaint alleges violations of MERA based on conduct
undertaken pursuant to a permit issued by the DNR, MERA
relief is available only under Minn. Stat. § 116.10 and
the bar in Minn. Stat. § 116B.03 applies.
argue that the district court erred by allowing respondents
to pursue claims under Minn. Stat. § 116B.03. They argue
that respondents' claims challenge the adequacy and
propriety of DNR-issued permits and were therefore required
to be brought under Minn. Stat. § 116B.10. Respondents
argue that the statute does not require them to bring their
claims under section 116B.10, because their challenge is to
the DNR's overall permitting process and the
cumulative impact of the water-use permits.
the district court properly applied Minn. Stat. §
116B.03 to respondents' claims presents a question of
statutory interpretation, and we review such questions de
novo. Caldas v. Affordable Granite & Stone,
Inc., 820 N.W.2d 826, 836 (Minn. 2012). The object of
statutory interpretation is to ascertain and effectuate the
intention of the legislative body. Minn. Stat. § 645.16
(2018). "If the legislature's intent is clear from
the unambiguous language of the statute, [appellate courts]
apply the statute according to its plain meaning."
Staab v. Diocese of St. Cloud, 853 N.W.2d 713,
716-17 (Minn. 2014).
interpreting a statute, we must construe statutory words and
phrases according to the rules of grammar and according to
their common and approved usage. Minn. Stat. § 645.08(1)
(2018). A court may turn to dictionaries to assess the plain
and ordinary meaning of a term. State v.
Thonesavanh, 904 N.W.2d 432, 436 (Minn. 2017).
provides "any person" residing within Minnesota a
private right of action for declaratory or equitable relief
to protect natural resources from "pollution,
impairment, or destruction." Minn. Stat. § 116B.03,
subd. 1. MERA broadly defines "person" as "any
natural person, any state, municipality or other governmental
or political subdivision or other public agency or
instrumentality . . . or other organization . . . and any
other entity, except a family farm, a family farm corporation
or a bona fide farmer corporation." Minn. Stat. §
116B.02, subd. 2. Both respondents and appellants concede-and
we agree-that the associations and the DNR are
"persons" as defined by the statute. Likewise, the
municipalities withdrawing groundwater are
"persons" under MERA because they are governmental
or political subdivisions.
maintain an action in district court under section 116B.03, a
plaintiff must make "a prima facie showing that the
conduct of the defendant has, or is likely to cause the
pollution, impairment, or destruction of the air, water, land
or other natural resources located within the state."
Minn. Stat. § 116B.04(b); State by Archbal v. County
of Hennepin, 495 N.W.2d 416, 421 (Minn. 1993). The scope
of the private right of action under section 116B.03,
however, is limited: "[N]o action shall be allowable
under this section for conduct taken by a person pursuant to
any environmental quality standard, limitation, rule, order,
license, stipulation agreement or permit issued by the
Pollution Control Agency, Department of Natural Resources,
Department of Health or Department of Agriculture."
Minn. Stat. § 116B.03, subd. 1.
separate provision of MERA, section 116B.10 (captioned
"Civil Action Against State"), authorizes a suit in
district court challenging the adequacy of "an
environmental quality standard, limitation, rule, order,
license, stipulation agreement, or permit
promulgated or issued by the state or any agency or
instrumentality thereof." Minn. Stat. § 116B.10,
subd. 1 (emphasis added). Under section 116B.10, a plaintiff
must produce "material evidence" showing that the
challenged standard or permit is "inadequate to
protect" the state's natural resources.
Id., subd. 2.
action is plainly one against a state agency, and it
challenges the adequacy of the groundwater-extraction permits
to protect the lake. The lake, in ...