Industrial leaders pledged to do what they could to help the flow of chloride into Lake Winona during the first meeting of a citizen’s chloride committee on Tuesday, Jan. 19.

“We want to be a sustainable partner in this and a good steward of the land,” said Joe Gerhardt, plant manager of SunOpta, one of the industrial customers that discharge softened water into the Alexandria Lake Area Sanitary District system and which is on the brink of expansion.

Tom Hedstrom, an environmental engineer for 3M, which is also a major industrial customer, said he too values the outdoors and the lakes.

The committee has formed to advise the sanitary district on how to handle the chloride problem, and also to work on solutions with the groups and companies they represent. Some of the possible solutions could result in sewer customers paying significantly more each month, and the removal of home water softeners. One possible solution involves softening city water with lime, which is easier on the environment but doesn’t achieve quite the softness of salt, and piping it to all sanitary district customers.

Lakes Winona, Henry and Agnes contain much more salt than the state deems OK, and testing revealed another big jump in salt levels from 2019 to 2020 in Lake Winona, according to Tracy Ekola, a consultant from Hazen and Sawyer, a water quality firm hired to help the sanitary district with controlling chloride.

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The problem has been building for years, she said.

“It took us a while to get into this and it’ll take us a while to get out,” she said. “We need to get this right. Chloride is a big issue.”

The sanitary district is tackling salt levels in order to comply with the federal Clean Water Act. Although it's not the plant's fault that salt is getting into the lakes, it requires a federal permit to discharge into Winona, and it received its current permit on the condition that it lead efforts to deal with the problem.

Once salt gets into a lake, there’s no good way to get it out, and it threatens the food chain, experts say. The sanitary district has no good way of removing salt either, once it enters their treatment plant. So efforts are focused on preventing salt from entering the sewer system in the first place. And that means by reducing the amount of chloride used in industry, institutions, in homes and by road crews.

The sanitary district plant is only supposed to discharge treated water with a salt level of 250 milligrams per liter. It’s now at 652 milligrams per liter.

“As you can see, we have a long way to go,” said Scott Gilbertson, sanitary district executive director.

This effort doesn't address other pollutants that also pass through the wastewater plant, such as prescription drugs and compounds in ordinary household products.

Those present at Tuesday’s meeting included Bill Luckemeyer and Gene Rose from the Douglas County Lakes Association; Brian Dahl, the Alexandria Light and Power water superintendent; Dane Bosl, public works director for the City of Alexandria; Dave Rush, Douglas County Land and Resource director; Dave Stuessy, a sewer customer not connected to ALP; Brian Bye of Widseth; Ted Cash, ALP general manager; Ryan White of Culligan, which sells water softeners; Roger Thalman, chairman of the sanitary district board and sanitary district

Staff including Supervisor Scott Spranger and Assistant Supervisor Troy Drews.

The committee will meet quarterly, with the next one set for April. Their meetings are open to the public.