Tide building on cleaner water

The sense of alarm in Prior Lake over dirty water is likely to spread as more “impaired waters” get clean-up orders.


Watching the filming of a documentary on the Minnesota River that aims to draw attention to its mucky waters, Tim Lies was struck by something.

“They were filming the Belle Plaine river-fishing contest,” said the mayor of that city. “And these were not tree huggers; they were catfish-fishin’, tobacco-spittin’ guys. And yet everyone in the group was extremely conscious of the environmental factors affecting the river. And it struck me, ‘Gosh, this is a metamorphosis that is the result of 20 years of work to raise awareness.'”

Environmental activists and government officials agree that they’ve never seen as much interest, as much knowledge, as much money pouring into the issue of water quality in the south metro area.

And yet they are also bracing for struggles, because a wave of new studies showing just how polluted most bodies of water around us really are is going to lead to a wave of “implementation,” pushing farmers, lakeshore owners and others responsible for the damage to change their ways.

The televised forum for candidates for Prior Lake City Council last month found fierce disagreement on some issues, but none on the need to make water-quality improvements a top priority.

That was probably the result of two well-publicized hits on the city this year: The news that its crown jewel was infested with zebra mussels, followed not long afterwards by the release of a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) report on the serious impairments in the connected waters in Spring and Upper Prior Lakes.

Beyond that, state officials say, similar studies are coming up on other lower-priority, smaller bodies of water.

And there’s an irony in Prior Lake becoming a poster child for water quality, they add: The city has been a pioneer in addressing the problem.

“I’m impressed with the work they’re doing,” said Chris Zadak of the MPCA. “They have been a real standout, for instance, in the area of salt and chloride.”

In 2008, the city started attacking chloride levels in Blind Lake with a “liquid brine only” program that reduces street salt use to one-seventh the quantity that was common a decade ago. Since then, according to a city memo released a few days ago, chloride in the lake is markedly down — leading to an expansion of the same program to other areas.

The process that has led to heightened concern in Prior Lake — a listing as “impaired” under the federal Clean Water Act, followed by a detailed study of what’s causing the problem, then a plan of attack — takes many years. It’s underway on many bodies of water other than in Prior Lake.

Scott County commissioners have expressed impatience that so much money seems to go into consultants and studies versus action aimed at solving things. But environmentalists say it’s vital to figure out what the major causes and solutions are rather than rush in and waste money on moves that don’t end up changing anything.

“I’ve seen some that are really well done,” said Kris Sigford, water quality specialist for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, “so you can target the dollars in ways that make a difference — and some poorly done, vague ones that don’t provide a road map at all.”

One small sign of the change required:

The Prior Lake-Spring Lake watershed district reports that on some farms south of Prior Lake whose erosion ends up in those lakes, soil loss is running 12 times as high as the county allows: 60 tons per acre per year, when the permissible loss is five.

Reducing that, officials add, not only will make streams and lakes less muddy, it will also cut down on the pollutants such as phosphorus and nitrogen clinging to all that dirt and holding the potential to make the water on the beaches of posh lake homes so toxic that dogs can die from lapping at the shore.

The consequences for people are key to public support for solutions, said County Commissioner Tom Wolf.

“Prior Lake, Spring Lake — people are on those lakes,” he said. “Their homes are on those lakes. They didn’t move to the lake to have it be green.”