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Carp removal a solution nobody wants to pay for on Lake Winona

Treated water from the Alexandria Lake Area Sanitary District cascades into Lake Winona at a steady rate. Seeing the outlet was one of the highlights of a pontoon tour city leaders took of the lake. (Al Edenloff | Echo Press)

There are some very happy carp these days, poking around in Lake Winona's shallow waters.

They take part of the blame for a lake so yucky that few want to wade in it or eat the fish they catch there. Yet nobody wants to take the lead in removing the carp, even though local and state officials say it's necessary to restore the lake's health. In fact, nobody is eager to take charge of the entire proposed plan to restore Lake Winona.

Lake Winona's water quality has been poor at least since 1974, when a federal report blamed the sewer plant run by the Alexandria Lake Area Sanitary District for dumping extremely high levels of phosphorus into its waters. While the sewer plant has dramatically improved the quality of the treated water going into the lake, the state's clean-up plan calls for it to go even further. Winona faces other challenges as well, including chloride from home water softeners.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency put together a plan to clean up the lake and presented it to the public earlier this year. But its $10 million-plus price tag has stunned local officials. The sewer district is fighting parts of it, as is the City of Alexandria.

State officials say removing the carp and taking charge of the plan is up to the locals, either the city, the county, lake associations or the sewer district, or a combination of them.

Locals say it's the state's job to lead the way.

Local entities can apply for grant money not available to state agencies, state officials say, adding that typically, local entities are the ones to tackle such issues themselves in order to fix polluted waters. If they don't, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has the power to write its own possibly more expensive and stringent plan.

"We don't have resources," said Denise Oakes, regional watershed manager for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, explaining why her agency can't do it. "Our budget keeps getting cut."

Added Minnesota Department of Natural Resources area fisheries supervisor Dean Beck, whose office was involved in formulating the clean-up plan, "I don't know that the fishermen ought to be tasked with that project of tackling the carp." His office is primarily funded by the sale of fishing licenses.

But locals say it's not their job either. Removing carp would require draining the lake and killing the remaining fish, a project estimated at about $500,000. On top of that is a requirement to further refine the sewer plant's ability to remove phosphorus from its wastewater at an estimated cost of $10 million or more.

The state of Minnesota owns those lakes along with possibly the DNR and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said Bruce Nelson, sewer district director.

"If they want to draw down those lakes, go ahead and do it," Nelson said. He questions if the plan would work, and if it does, if it would create a lake the locals can live with.

"The whole thing is just kind of a crazy situation," said Mayor Sara Carlson. A January 31 letter from the city to the state Pollution Control Agency said it wanted the state to take the lead in removing carp, adding, "Neither the city nor (the sewer district) has the responsibility or the jurisdiction to address this issue."

All parties involved want a healthy lake, Carlson said. "We're all trying to work together to make sure that's what happens and yet what some of the (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) has asked isn't necessarily realistic."

Carp, an invasive species, are notorious for rooting into lake bottoms, tearing up native plants, muddying the water and causing algae to bloom on the surface. They got into Lake Winona when stormwater washed away a barrier sometime after 2004.

The Environmental Protection Agency has to sign off on the plan to restore Lake Winona. But the EPA has expressed doubt that the plan can work, Oakes said. The EPA requires reasonable assurance that the plan will be carried out and with no group stepping up, and with the sewer system signalling a willingness to fight the proposed clean-up plan as is, the EPA, ever mindful of the possibility of court challenges from environmental groups, could deny the proposed plan and write one with teeth, she said.

An EPA spokesperson said that its Chicago-based regional office has never denied a state clean-up plan, called a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL.

"However, on a few occasions a state has either elected to not submit a particular TMDL, or has withdrawn a TMDL following submittal," the spokesperson said.

Restoring Lake Winona seems like a simple enough goal. But it's not. Alarms have been clanging about the lake's water quality at least since 1974, when an EPA report advised the waste treatment plant to stop discharging into the lake and instead pour treated wastewater over land or divert it elsewhere, in order that the waters not become further degraded.

That never happened. In later decades, the sewer district dramatically improved its ability to remove phosphorus — an element that can starve a lake of oxygen. Its steps have drawn praise from state agencies. However, the agencies also say the sewer district needs to go further in order to restore the lake.

Even creating a clean Lake Winona might not be desirable, the locals say. Draining the lake and removing the carp can cause native plants to grow, inhibiting the ability of property owners to enjoy their lake. Some people catch carp for sport, and the lake has an abundant crappie population. They also boat there. Property owners have to sign off on any plan to drain the lake, and they might not want that.

"We don't want to cause a lake to become weed choked and lose beneficial uses," said Nelson, the sewer district director. He also said he doesn't want to apply for grants for the millions of dollars necessary to restore Lake Winona.

"We think it's a waste of state money and our money," he said.

He added: "We're on that razor's edge where there's no direction to go that's good. There's no good outcome."

Public hearing scheduled

Alexandria Lake Area Sanitary District under orders to cut emissions of chloride and phosphorous into Lake Winona, has set a public hearing for a plan it must submit to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. It will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 6, at Alexandria City Hall. The sewer district is asking for leniency on those orders through a process known as a variance.