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Lakeshore owners 'demands' criticized

A list of demands made this month by a group of lakeshore owners seeking additional lake protections is receiving some pushback from local officials.

"I'm a little disappointed with the word 'demand,'" said Alexandria Mayor Sarah Carlson. "Our community is more of a partnership kind of community, so I would have rather we worked together with everybody. Setting out demands doesn't exactly set the right tone."

At its July 11 meeting, the Douglas County Lakes Association approved six steps it says local governments must take: Limit lakeshore development; limit variances, strictly enforce shoreland and buffer zone laws and regulations; regularly inspect septic systems; reduce chloride and phosphate levels in lakes; and create an environmental legacy fund.

It described these items as "demands," a word choice that drew unflattering responses on social media.

Carlson agrees that area lakes need protecting.

"None of us in city government want to do anything that would harm our lakes," she said. Carlson and other city officials are "continually working on the environment," she said, and are keenly aware of the troubles plaguing Lake Winona and other impaired lakes. That lake has been impaired for decades as it has been the site of sewer plant discharge, and the pollution has run downstream to other lakes.

"We've worked really hard trying to find a solution," Carlson said.

Sewer chief Bruce Nelson, whose sanitary district was singled out for criticism at the Douglas County Lakes Association meeting, said none of the lakeshore owners have ever met with him to go over their concerns.

He contended that the sanitary district deserves credit for replacing lakeshore septic systems, which pose their own environmental risks. The sewer system abides by state guidelines, and many lake water quality problems predate the sewer plant, he said.

Regardless, over the next year, Alexandria Lake Area Sanitary District will begin educating residents how their water softeners contribute to chloride pollution, a daunting and hugely expensive problem that can taint tap water and harm aquatic life.

Nelson questioned whether lakeshore owners would themselves be willing to take costly and inconvenient steps to improve lake quality, such as giving up or upgrading their home water softeners.

Owen Miller, chairman of the Douglas County Board, declined to comment on the lakes association's list of demands.

"It hasn't been presented to any of the boards yet," he said. "Until it's presented to the boards, I really don't have any comment on it."

County Commissioner Jim Stratton agrees with some of the association's demands, such as creating an environmental trust fund. And he acknowledged the problem with the county's system of handling lakeshore owners who improperly cut trees or cause erosion.

"If you're putting up a million-dollar house, what's even a $500 fine?" he said. "It doesn't reflect on the severity of what they're doing."

Stratton questioned other demands. Septic system inspections are expensive, and county commissioners are looking at requiring fewer of them, not more, he said. If septic systems are in the middle of 10 acres away from lakes, "it becomes a personal choice to have a septic system that's not working properly," he said.

Jeanne Johnson, president of the Brophy Lake Association, was the one who presented the measures to the Douglas County Lakes Association. She said that she's not backing down from its strong language.

"I personally stand by the use of the word 'demand' because of the urgency of the situation," Johnson said. "Lakes throughout Minnesota are being ruined because of human activity, whether it's agricultural and residential runoff of fertilizers and pesticides, stormwater and sewer pollution or overdevelopment. The same is true here in the Alex area."

She cited Lakes Winona, Henry and Agnes in particular, which are among 13 Douglas County lakes on the Minnesota List of Impaired Waters for excess nutrients.

Dick Miller, chairman of LaGrand Township, which borders Lake Winona, doesn't possess regulatory power on the planning and zoning issues brought up by the lakes association. Still, he has paid attention to lake association activities over the years.

"The lake associations are getting stronger — good, bad or indifferent," he said. "It seems like they have more opinions. They're watching the lakes closer."