The Alexandria sanitary district will revive a citizen’s advisory committee as it seeks ways to reduce the amount of salt entering Lake Winona from treated wastewater.

It’s a costly problem, and solutions will require community support. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has calculated that reducing chloride could reach $2,370 per household each year depending on the steps taken. The Alexandria Lake Area Sanitary District, or ALASD, is sending significantly more chloride than it should into the lake and is seeking a variance that would give it more time to figure out how to meet the legal limits.

“The cost to the community is definitely something we’ve looked at and that’s why the decision for a variance has been made,” said Elise Doucette, a policy specialist for the agency.

Concern about cost came up at a virtual public meeting on Thursday, Sept. 3, as one woman mentioned that many retirees on fixed incomes live in affected parts of the sewer district’s service area. ALASD serves more than 26,000 people in a 102-square mile area, including the city of Alexandria as well as Alexandria, Carlos, Hudson, Ida, LaGrand, Lake Mary and Leaf Valley townships, the cities of Nelson and Forada, Carlos State Park, and two state rest areas along I-94.

The sanitary district qualifies for a variance partly because of the tremendous cost of some proposed solutions.

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One, a membrane filtration/reverse osmosis system, would cost $107 million, or $1,342 a year per household. This solution is problematic as it would force the plant to figure out how to dispose of the chloride residue it removes.

A second proposal, a reverse osmosis system at a drinking water plant, would cost $207.7 million, or $2,153 a year per household.

The third, a lime water softening plant that would provide softened drinking water to all sanitary district customers, replacing private wells in many cases, would cost $211.2 million, or $2,370 a year per household. That’s because pipes would need to be installed to carry the water to all the customers outside city limits.

These options do not take into account any state aid the district could receive and it’s possible that none of them would ever come to fruition.

A cheaper option, providing softened water only to those inside Alexandria city limits, would reduce chloride concentrations by about 50%, provided all water softeners are removed from customers in Alexandria, ALASD Executive Director Scott Gilbertson commented during the meeting.

The idea of removing water softeners drew immediate opposition from a man who identified himself as the owner of the local Culligan’s.

“That can’t happen and that won’t happen,” he said.

Doucette said her agency has learned that people are “very, very serious about water softeners” and that it wants to include industry players. One way to minimize chloride is to switch softeners from those that operate on a timer to ones that operate only when needed. Also, softeners settings can be changed to use less salt. Water in Douglas County is very hard, and the agency recognizes that they need softened water, she said.

Gilbertson said that water softener businesses will be included in the citizen’s committee as it was in 2016, when it last met.

Steve Henry, president of the Douglas County Lakes Association, attended the meeting but said he was unable to comment because of his internet settings.

Alexandria’s chloride problem has no easy solution, he said, but he wishes that the citizen’s group had been involved in discussions in recent years.

“It’s somewhat frustrating to me that they talk about the meeting that was held in 2016 with the community group and they didn’t follow up with that,” he said. “The group was not included since then.”

He also would like more information about how many ALASD customers use timed water softeners and how many use on-demand softeners. Some in his group have seen a 50% reduction in salt consumption once they switched to the softeners that only operate as needed.

“It would greatly improve where we are,” he said.

He said he hopes the new group comes up with solutions.

“It’s very much needed,” he said.

Wastewater is one of the top three sources of chloride to Minnesota lakes, said Brooke Asleson, state chloride coordinator. The others are road de-icer and fertilizer application, particularly potassium chloride.

Residents have through Monday, Sept. 14, to submit written comments on the district’s draft permit, available online. The pollution control agency would then submit the permit application to the U.S. EPA, which would have 60 days to approve the plan or 90 days to reject it. A decision would come before the end of 2020, Doucette said.