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Nelson reflects on 40 years of overseeing sewer

Bruce Nelson will retire on Friday, Aug. 31, after spending 40 years as executive director of the Alexandria Lake Area Sanitary District. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)

On the walls of Bruce Nelson's corner office are photographs of wilderness and water: canoeing, loons, an underwater view of a turtle and aquatic plants.

"I thought they'd be a nice fit in here," said Nelson, 70, the outgoing executive director of the Alexandria Lake Area Sanitary District, which serves 10,000 sewer customers in and around Douglas County. "It's part of what we're doing."

For 40 years, Nelson has overseen the district, fielding criticism from customers who didn't want sewer service and from environmentalists upset that the sewer system discharges treated water into Lake Winona. Nelson frequently touts the cleanliness of the plant's treated water and during one noteworthy incident, took a dare to drink water discharged from the plant.

The taste was unremarkable, he said.

"I've drunk worse in my life," Nelson said. "I've drunk alcohol, which is nothing but glorified gasoline."

He downed the treated water without any ill effect, he said, although his board of directors still teases him about it.

"We've joked about it at meetings, when the light goes out, Bruce glows a little more," said board chairman Roger Thalman.

Nelson will serve his last day on Friday, Aug. 31, and the sanitary district is throwing a retirement party for him that afternoon. His successor will be Scott Gilbertson, a water/wastewater supervisor at Detroit Lakes Utilities.

Environmental background

Nelson considers himself a strong environmentalist, and frequently produces records showing improvements in Lake Winona's water quality as well as in downstream lakes Agnes and Henry. For instance, phosphorus levels have dropped in those three lakes over the past 40 years, and Nelson maintains it's because the plant does such a good job removing phosphorus, a nutrient that fuels algae growth in lakes. It removes more than 97 percent of phosphorus, according to district records.

"I don't know how many plants are doing that well," he said. "There may be a handful. We've had (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) staff tell us we're doing the best in the state."

When Nelson was hired, he replaced John Sullivan, an engineer tasked with creating the district in the 1970s. In the wake of the Clean Water Act, Alexandria was under the gun to replace its less-than-pristine sewage treatment plant on Lake Henry as well as the many septic systems and drain fields that were harming lake quality, Sullivan recalled.

"It was controversial," he said. "A lot of people didn't want to pay and they were concerned the costs were going to be prohibitive."

Originally, the plant was supposed to go near Carlos and spray the treated waters onto fields there, Sullivan said. However, Carlos and Miltona residents argued that Alexandria ought to keep its sewage local, so it ended up on Lake Winona. Winona, Henry and Agnes were all polluted at the time, he said, and the theory then was that dumping high-quality treated water would help clean those lakes.

"The solution to pollution is dilution," he said. "Part of the thinking was yeah, if we put all the wastewater into Lake Winona, it'll flow through the three lakes" and clean them up.

While some environmental measures in those lakes have improved, scientists have largely discounted that theory based on evidence that some pollutants simply don't break down no matter how much they are diluted.

Alexandria was final stop

When Sullivan first met his successor, his first impression was, "He's got long hair."

Nelson had graduated from college in the 1960s, enlisted in the U.S. Air Force hoping to avoid Vietnam and spent three years keeping missile silos ready to launch.

Knowing he was maintaining weapons that could wipe out whole cities marked a time of serious dissonance for the self-described "liberal Lutheran boy" from Minnesota.

After the military, he worked in administration for the cities of Fridley and Faribault before reading a classified ad for the Alexandria job.

Sullivan had got the sewer plant going, but there were still kinks Nelson had to address. There were sewer expansions, and complaints about fees, and convincing the county to make sewer expansion a requirement for subdivisions.

Now, any subdivision in the sanitary district has to connect, no matter how far it is from the nearest pipe. That means if it's a mile away, the developer would have to pay $300,000 to run the pipe to the subdivision, Nelson said.

"I'd be the first one to admit that's a rigorous requirement," he said.

After a couple of years on the job, Nelson noticed that people stopped coming by to complain and instead stopped by asking for sewer service.

"We've never turned anyone down," he said.

When he started, there were 1,900 customers. Now, there are approximately 10,200. He oversees about two dozen employees, a $3.5 million budget, and reports to the board.

Thalman called relations between Nelson and the board "excellent." In his own 15 years on the board, he only recalls one split vote. Otherwise, the board votes unanimously on everything that comes its way.

"The board trusts where Bruce is at and trusts his opinion on things," Thalman said. "We'll question him on things. We don't rubber stamp anything, but we rely on him to do the research."

Nelson's relations with employees have also been good, Thalman said. He sees Nelson as a straight-shooter, if a bit too chatty.

"That has been the biggest joke, is how to cut him off, otherwise our board meetings would go on for two hours," Thalman said.

Nelson acknowledges he has been known to talk too much. He's a compulsive talker. A recent interview with him veered not just into his years at the plant but the politics of the 1960s, the nation's war on drugs, his wife, children and grandson, the salt content of oceans, the novel he vows to finish writing, possible volunteer work and the awkwardness of receiving praise, before settling back into the passion and the deep knowledge he has developed about what we rinse down our drains and flush down our toilets.

After all, the sewage plant only takes out what people put in.

And some of what people put in end up back in our lakes and rivers: products containing endocrine disruptors, found in some detergents, cosmetics and foods; salt from water softeners; mercury from dental fillings, especially from dentist offices, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; hormones from birth control pills that contribute to the feminization of fish.

"A lot if it can't be removed," Nelson said. "We've found the enemy and it is us."