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Pollution chief OKs Winona cleanup plan

Treated water from the Alexandria Lake Area Sanitary District cascades into Lake Winona at a steady rate last summer. (Al Edenloff / Echo Press)

Minnesota's pollution chief said he agrees, at least in concept, with allowing Alexandria's sewer district to take a new approach in cleaning the algae-coated Lake Winona, a move that could save the district $14 million.

During an interview this past week with the Echo Press, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner John Linc Stine praised the Alexandria Lake Area Sanitary District's efforts to clean the water it discharges into Lake Winona.

"That puts them in a good place to be a candidate for this kind of flexibility," Stine said.

The district has greatly reduced the amount of phosphorus it discharges into Lake Winona, but environmental regulations call for it to make further reductions that would require installing an expensive treatment system. Phosphorus is a key culprit in spreading algae across water surfaces, including toxic blue-green algae blooms that can sicken pets, livestock and even people.

This new approach would allow the sewer district to focus on removing phosphorus already in the lake — or at least removing the fish that stir it up — instead of reducing the amount it puts into it.

On Friday, April 27, Stine met with local officials — including the sewer district's executive director, Bruce Nelson, its chairman, Roger Thalman, and Alexandria Mayor Sara Carlson — to talk about how to proceed. Local officials have balked at spending $14 million to reduce phosphorus.

If all parties can agree on the details, regulators would allow the sewer district to try the less- expensive approach first.

"We've reached, I can't say an agreement, but at least an understanding and a bit of a framework for going forward and trying to resolve our disagreements without having to spend $14 million or alternatively having to go into the court system," Nelson said.

State lawmakers representing this area have tried to get $600,000 to help with the plan, but that funding is in doubt and could be vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton as part of a legislative spending bill. Local officials have not indicated if they would come up with the funds on their own.

The sewer district proposes to improve Lake Winona water quality by removing invasive carp, which stir up sediment on lake bottoms and release phosphorus for algae to feed on. Its plan would include tagging carp to track their movements over a year or two before removing them. They would probably be netted in the winter through the ice, when they group together and would be easiest to remove.

With carp gone, Winona would likely become a clearer, yet weedier lake, as native aquatic plants return. If those plants don't return, the next step would be to drain the lake bed and spread seed, Stine said. Draining would require the consent of property owners, according to Nelson.

If the plan succeeds, quality would improve downstream in lakes Henry and Agnes. The plan involves treating Lake Agnes with alum, which would bind to the phosphorus and sink it to the lake bottom, rendering it harmless for a long period.

The U.S. EPA would have to sign off on the sewer district's proposal. Stine said he thinks the agency will, as its leaders have been emphasizing a policy of "cooperative federalism," which Stine said seems to be a way to cooperate with states in order to achieve strong results.

"I'm cautiously optimistic about the EPA's reaction to this," he said. "We do believe they have a rational plan."

Crumbling pipes

Stine was also in town to generate support for Dayton's plan to allocate $167 million a year to help Minnesota communities upgrade their water infrastructure.

Many communities are facing costly upgrades to aging water and sewer plants installed with significant federal help in the 1970s and 1980s. That federal assistance is not there at the same level, and pipes are crumbling and valves failing, Stine said.

He noted that in 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers awarded a grade of D to the nation's drinking water infrastructure.

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