Clean water worth the price; New state standards designed to protect rivers choking with algae

Published 9:48 am Wednesday, September 16, 2015

By John Linc Stine

Commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

We all want clean water for drinking, fishing and swimming — on that we all agree. How to achieve clean water is a much more challenging and complex issue to solve. We’re miles ahead of other states in what we know about water quality, thanks to Clean Water funding approved by voters.

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Recently, the cities of Austin and Albert Lea raised concerns about the cost of meeting new limits on wastewater treatment discharges. Austin treats its wastewater and discharges it to the Cedar River. Albert Lea treats its wastewater and discharges it to the Shell Rock River.

John Linc Stine

John Linc Stine

Over the past century advances in wastewater treatment have led to major improvements in public health and surface waters that receive wastewater discharges. However in some places more treatment is needed, especially to remove phosphorus that acts as food for harmful algae. Discharge limits in the range of those proposed for Austin and Albert Lea are designed to protect rivers like the Cedar and Shell Rock, the fish and other aquatic life that call them home

Today, wastewater treatment plants in both communities remove some phosphorus, but with newer technology they could remove a lot more.

Phosphorus getting into rivers leads to a vicious cycle: Phosphorus is a great fertilizer for algae, causing these rootless plants to grow quickly. Algae don’t live long, resulting in a lot of dead organic matter that uses up oxygen in the water as the plants decay. That leaves less oxygen for fish, bugs and other aquatic life. MPCA and local studies show that aquatic life is suffering in both the Cedar and Shell Rock rivers. Algae also make the water unsightly and smelly for swimming, paddling and fishing. Some forms can even make animals and people sick.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Technology can drastically reduce phosphorus, with other tools available for communities like Austin and Albert Lea to address pollutant problems. Minnesota also offers funding options to make these updates manageable. While wastewater is only one source of phosphorus in rivers, its treatment is a critical part of keeping waters healthy.

Many cities are already meeting and exceeding these standards

The exact cost for Austin and Albert Lea to upgrade their wastewater treatment is not yet known. Any estimates about the cost of meeting the new limits are only speculation at this time. That’s because limits are customized for every treatment plant and river. We look at the amount of phosphorus in a river and how that river reacts to it. For example, slow shallow rivers tend to grow more algae while deeper and faster rivers grow less.

The cost of improving water quality is always factored into our limit setting. It’s why the state offers grants and low-interest loans to reduce pollution. It’s why cities can phase in compliance with new rules and use innovative approaches. It’s why cities can apply for a variance, allowing them to exceed a limit while making progress toward the goal. It’s why we’re working with Austin and Albert Lea to set their phosphorus limits and find affordable ways to meet them.

The MPCA will look at each plant and figure out the limit on phosphorus for that plant and that river to make a difference. This approach makes more sense economically and environmentally than setting one limit that all plants have to meet whether it helps their local rivers or not.

We’re confident in the science behind the proposed limits. We’re also confident that communities will find ways to do their share to clean up Minnesota’s rivers. We look at Bemidji and Ely that have been meeting strict phosphorus limits since the 1970s. Throughout Minnesota more than 240 cities are already being held to these more stringent limits.

Fishable, swimmable and drinkable waters are essential to our way of life. They’re also essential to communities downstream. We all want clean water. We all recognize the value it brings to Minnesota: both in terms of tangible economic benefits such as increased property values and a robust tourism industry, and intangible benefits that enrich our lives as Minnesotans. We must work together to find creative, cost-effective solutions to paying for it. We can achieve water quality when we all do our fair share.


John Linc Stine has served as MPCA commissioner since 2012 after serving as deputy commissioner. He previously served as assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Dept. of Health and assistant director of trails and waterways for the Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources. John holds a Bachelor of Science degree in soil and water resource management from the University of Minnesota.