Water fight on Winona ramps upA long-simmering controversy over Lake Winona, a sewage treatment plant and how it impacts Alexandria lakes took a new turn this week. The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) and the Lake L’Homme Dieu Association filed suit Tuesday against the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) for failure to protect Lake Winona and downstream waters from pollution. The groups say they’re asking the state agency “to do its job” and protect the environment.
By: Al Edenloff, Alexandria Echo Press
A long-simmering controversy over Lake Winona, a sewage treatment plant and how it impacts Alexandria lakes took a new turn this week.
The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) and the Lake L’Homme Dieu Association filed suit Tuesday against the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) for failure to protect Lake Winona and downstream waters from pollution.
The groups say they’re asking the state agency “to do its job” and protect the environment.
The MPCA, meanwhile, contends that it is doing just that but the process of deciding what kind of discharge the lake should be handling is taking longer than expected because of the lake’s unusual characteristics.
Lake Winona is a shallow lake with high levels of phosphorus – more than four times the water quality standard.
This causes algae blooms and negatively impacts connected downstream lakes, according to the MCEA. Summer algae blooms can be toxic to animals and humans and the MPCA has instructed people to stay away from lakes during algae blooms.
The MPCA listed Lake Winona as impaired by excess phosphorus in 2002. The primary source of phosphorus is the Alexandria Lakes Area Sanitary District (ALASD) wastewater treatment plant, which discharges treated sewage into Lake Winona.
When the MPCA approved an expansion of the ALASD plant in 2006, the MCEA challenged the action.
In argument before the Minnesota Supreme Court, MPCA said it would force the treatment plant to reduce its phosphorus discharge, or total maximum daily load (TMDL), to a level that would protect Lake Winona’s water quality.
That plan was initially scheduled to be done by 2009, but the MCEA said that no action to reduce the pollution has yet been taken.
When contacted by the Echo Press, Shannon Lotthammer, manager of the MPCA standards development, said the agency is making progress in establishing Lake Winona’s phosphorous levels. She said that in 2011, the MPCA initiated a public comment period on new proposed phosphorous standards for the lake.
The comment period drew input from the MCEA and a contested hearing request from ALASD. Right now, the MPCA is in the process of granting the hearing.
“The suggestion that we’re not making progress in TMDL is not accurate,” she said. “The MPCA is working closely with local partners and identified the need to adopt site specific standards for Lake Winona.”
The lake, Lotthammer said, has unique characteristics that allow it to have higher levels of nutrients while still limiting algae growth. The general standard for acceptable phosphorous levels in a lake is 60 parts per billion (ppb) but in Lake Winona’s case, the MPCA is proposing 75 ppb, which she said would still protect aquatic life and recreational opportunities.
Although ALASD’s permit expired a year ago, it has been allowed to operate on the expired permit.
“These endless delays from the MPCA are totally unacceptable,” said Kris Sigford, MCEA water quality program director. “The agency knew about the phosphorus impairment in 2002, and they knew that the permit they issued in 2006 would not alleviate the problem. Lake Winona’s phosphorus pollution is as bad as ever, and now it and two downstream lakes are also impaired by excess chloride – all because of ALASD’s discharge.”
Kevin Reuther, the MCEA legal director, is also frustrated. “The MPCA said to the state’s highest court that it had a plan and would deal with this sewage discharge to the lakes in Alexandria,” he said. “They haven’t done what they promised.”
The groups are now seeking a court order forcing the MPCA to issue a new permit to the ALASD that has more stringent limits to control pollution.
The MPCA is required to establish protective limits on the amount of pollution that can be discharged into the state’s waters, under both state and federal law.
“We regret that it has become necessary to resort to legal action to obtain resolution to a long-standing problem of contamination,” the Lake L’Homme Dieu Association said in a written statement. “This contamination not only affects Lake Winona but other lakes immediately downstream from Winona including Lake L’Homme Dieu. This is a situation that the MPCA promised to address several years ago. They have failed to move forward on their promise.”
1976 Phosphorus levels in Lake Winona are 54-60 parts per billion (ppb). (The existing water quality standard for Lake Winona requires 60 ppb or less total phosphorus.)
1977 ALASD begins operation of wastewater treatment plant discharging into the south end of Lake Winona.
1995 MPCA’s Lake Assessment Program finds high levels of chloride in Lake L’Homme Dieu, and reports this may reflect “chloride from the ALASD wastewater treatment facility reaching the lake.”
2002 MPCA lists Lake Winona as impaired by excess nutrients (phosphorus).
2005 ALASD applies for permit to expand its discharge.
2006 MPCA grants the permit for an expansion over MCEA’s and Lake L’Homme Dieu Association’s objections. The permit has no chloride limit and a phosphorus limit of 300 ppb. MCEA appeals the permit.
2006 MPCA tells the courts that the TMDL (clean-up plan with necessary phosphorus limit for ALASD) is under way and will be complete in 2009, with the new limit imposed on ALASD within the term of its 2006-issued permit.
2007 MPCA issues a Request for Proposal (RFP) to “develop a nutrient TMDL with waste load and load allocations for phosphorus.” RFP states that the TMDL is to be complete by December 31, 2009 and it must “specifically include development of [phosphorus] limits for the ALASD.”
2007 ALASD files a petition requesting MPCA to downgrade Lake Winona’s designated uses. MPCA denies the petition.
2008 First contract awarded by MPCA to prepare the TMDL.
2008 ALASD requests that a “site-specific standard” be prepared by MPCA.
2009 The Science Museum of Minnesota completes its state-funded research into the historical levels of phosphorus in Lake Winona, showing that post-development but pre-ALASD discharge in-lake concentrations were between 54-60 parts per billion (supporting the existing water quality standard of 60 ppb) and that levels increased rapidly to “hypereutrophic” levels following the addition of ALASD’s discharge in 1977.
2009 Contractor provides MPCA with a draft TMDL and assigns a phosphorus limit of 42 parts per billion to ALASD.
2010 MCEA writes to MPCA asking the agency to follow through on its commitment to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
2010 Lake Winona and two downstream connected lakes, Agnes and Henry, are listed by the MPCA as impaired by excess chloride.
2011 ALASD’s permit issued in 2006 expires.
2011 MPCA puts out a public notice for input on proposed site specific standards for Lake Winona.
2012 MCEA and Lake L’Homme Dieu Association file suit against MPCA.