Commentary: State shouldn't force costly upgrades on Lake Winona
By Alexandria Lake Area Sanitary District board of directors
As members of the Alexandria Lake Area Sanitary District board of directors, we strive to be good stewards of the environment and our local ratepayers' dollars. We know it costs money to keep our lakes clean, but we also want to be sure our communities' financial resources aren't squandered.
That is why a new state requirement on Lake Winona has us scratching our heads. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is requiring ALASD to comply with new phosphorus regulations, which could require up to $14 million in infrastructure upgrades, even though scientific evidence indicates that the MPCA's goal of a "clear lake state" may not be achieved.
Let us provide some background on the issue:
Lake Winona has a long history of nutrient impairment dating back to the 1880s. Over the years, ALASD has made significant investments to improve water quality in the lake and others downstream. In fact, our current treatment process removes more than 97 percent of the phosphorus in our wastewater. Despite these efforts, Lake Winona is still deemed by the state as "impaired" due to excessive nutrients and algal growth.
To remove Lake Winona from its impaired waters list, the MPCA is requiring ALASD to meet an even more restrictive phosphorous limit and install an additional treatment process that would take out about 99 percent of the phosphorous, just 2 percent more than we currently remove. This facility upgrade is estimated to cost $11-$14 million.
ALASD isn't opposed to spending money to meet the state's phosphorus goals, but we are concerned that the MPCA is putting the cart before the horse by potentially forcing us to invest in expensive infrastructure upgrades before other options are pursued.
Scientists from the MPCA and an engineering firm hired by ALASD agree that in order to meet state water quality targets, Lake Winona must undergo carp removal and/or a lake drawdown to establish aquatic vegetation. This process is estimated to cost approximately $500,000 — a fraction of the price of facility upgrades. Further, science shows that the lake might meet the phosphorus target by performing the carp removal and/or lake drawdown without additional reductions from ALASD.
In other words, any infrastructure upgrades are totally worthless unless the carp problem is addressed first.
At this point, the Department of Natural Resources, which typically handles carp problems, and the MPCA are unwilling to take responsibility for the necessary carp removal. State law also requires approval from 75 percent of lake landowners before a drawdown can occur.
Another wrench in the situation is that if Lake Winona, a lake with an average depth of 4.5 feet, is restored to its "clear lake state" as required in the standards, light will reach the bottom of this shallow lake and lead to an overgrowth of weeds. This weed-choked state would make it difficult to use the lake for recreation.
Based on all of this information, we believe it is in the best interest of Lake Winona and our constituents to pursue a variance (a temporary delay in implementation of the new phosphorus requirement) until carp removal is complete and the lake is reassessed. Even if a drawdown is completed and followed by the installation of an $11-$14 million capital improvement, the lake still may not comply with the state's water quality standard.
From our standpoint, it is simply common sense to address the carp problem — which is undeniably a factor in preventing Lake Winona's restoration — before investing in costly facility upgrades.
Since it is ultimately your money that we are dealing with, we are seeking feedback from area residents and business owners on this issue. ALASD is holding a public hearing on the facility management plan, which includes the variance request, at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 13 at Alexandria City Hall. It is an opportunity to learn about the issue and share your opinions.
We hope you will attend the public hearing and also support ALASD's request for a variance. ALASD wants to reduce water pollution, but we believe it is common sense to pursue the least-expensive option before investing millions of our ratepayers' dollars in facility upgrades that may do little or nothing to solve the problem.
Board members include Ron Fenelon, Hudson Township; Rod Eldevik, Alexandria Township; Joel Dahlheimer, Alexandria Township; Steven Schmidt, LaGrand Township; Paul Hanson, LaGrand Township; Roger Thalman, city of Alexandria; Thomas Hayes, city of Alexandria; Gaylen Lerohl, Lake Mary Township; Paul Nelson, city of Alexandria; Don Nolting, city of Alexandria; Glen Van Amber, Ida Township; and Dwayne Waldorf, Carlos Township.