'A cultural shift' necessary to clean Lake Winona

Community may have to choose between 'fluffy towels' and lake quality, SunOpta manager says.

Treated water from the Alexandria Lake Area Sanitary District cascades into Lake Winona. (Echo Press file photo)

The latest report on cleaning up Lake Winona is out, and the dollar figures to do so are as staggering as they ever were.

To reach the goal of reducing one pollutant — chloride — that enters the lake, technical advisors for the Alexandria Lake Area Sanitary District are estimating that the only two methods capable of meeting federal water quality goals would cost $150 million for one or $170 million for the other for installation.

Their figures are included in Alexandria Lake Area Sanitary District Chloride Investigation and Minimization Plan submitted recently to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Area planners have known for some time that cleaning the lake would be costly. Lake Winona suffers from multiple pollutants that drain into it from the wastewater treatment plant. It's a great concern because it drains into Lakes Henry and Agnes, fouling the very water bodies that have made a name — and a fortune — for the Alexandria lakes area.

The technology to clean Lake Winona exists.


"But at what cost," said Gene Rose, vice president of the Douglas County Lakes Association, who also sits on a committee tasked with coming up with a solution to the chloride, and who has a doctorate in chemical engineering. "It's not a question of can it be done, but how much we want to spend."

The treatment plant serves the Alexandria Lake Area Sanitary District (ALASD), which treats wastewater from more than 10,000 customers, including homes, businesses, industry and institutions. Whatever gets flushed down the toilet or washed down the sink or sent through the wastewater pipes going through the treatment plant, which cleans the wastewater as best as it can, then discharged into Winona.

The biggest culprit for the chloride pollution is water softeners. Banned or restricted in about 30 states or local governments across the country, the softeners in Douglas County are constantly using salt to soften the area's hard water. That chloride ends up at the treatment plant, which has no way to remove it, and then into the lake.

Especially problematic are the softeners of ALASD customers who live outside Alexandria. That's because those inside the city limits get their drinking water from ALP, which already removes some hardness before sending it to customers, thus reducing the need for softener salt. ALASD customers outside the city limits get their drinking water from private wells and require more salt to soften their water to a point where it doesn't damage their appliances or leave buildup on their dishes and fixtures.

Solutions for water softeners include switching from timed units — which provide softened water even when not needed — to on-demand units, which only soften water as needed; provide central softening at ALP and removing private home softeners; providing reverse osmosis systems in private homes or at the treatment plant, extending ALP service to all households in ALASD's service area, or a combination of these options.

The report lists the following installation costs for each option:

  • All demand softeners: $14.2 million
  • ALP softening and no private well action: $12.8 million
  • ALP softening and private well demand softener: $19.9 million
  • ALP softening for all households within ALASD service area: $150 million
  • ALP softening and private well reverse osmosis systems $170 million
  • ALP softening and microfiltration/reverse osmosis at ALASD: $78 million.

While all the options would help reduce chloride, the only two options that would meet the federal and state chloride limits are to provide ALP softening for all households and install reverse osmosis systems at each customer location, or to provide ALP softening for all households within the ALASD service area with a ban on private softeners, the report says.
Those reached by the Echo Press for this article said the most expensive options are unlikely to happen.

What is more likely to happen is that the community does what it can to reduce chloride.


Joe Gerhardt, manager of the SunOpta plant on Third Street, who also sits on the chloride committee, said SunOpta is committed to reducing the amount of chloride it sends to ALASD. It discharges more chloride than any other local manufacturer, and is seeking ways to change that, he said.

His company values sustainability and the local workers enjoy using the lakes for fishing and other forms of recreation.

He says the solution lies in tackling the problem from many angles.

“Culturally, there needs to be a shift," he said. "Do you really need that level of softened water in the house, or do you just need enough so it won’t damage your water softener or your dishwasher? That’s the trade off for clean lakes and rivers. ... I think a cultural shift is going to have to happen."

People have to choose between "fluffy towels" and "fish and future generations," he said.

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