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Local cities, state work toward cleaner water

The drinking water in Cloquet meets all federal and state standards, but the city is building a filter plant this summer to treat for manganese in the water. Manganese is a needed mineral but can be harmful at high levels. Jana Peterson/

If Gov. Mark Dayton gets his wish, the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" could someday claim to be the "Land of 10,000 Clean Lakes and great drinking water."

But not now. That's because more than 40 percent of Minnesota's waters are currently listed as impaired or polluted, and more and more rural drinking water systems are having to deal with nitrate contamination and other issues.

"All Minnesotans deserve water that is safe for drinking, cleaning, swimming and fishing," Dayton said in February after his office released a new water quality report and a public works proposal that would invest $167 million to improve local clean water infrastructure.

"In last year's regional water quality summits, I heard directly from many Minnesotans how important it is to them to protect and improve water quality throughout our state," he said.

The city of Cloquet has been looking into drinking water quality since before 2009, when the city funded a major study of its groundwater wells and potable water system.

While Cloquet City Engineer Caleb Peterson said many communities would be "jealous of Cloquet's raw water quality," the city is concerned about levels of manganese — a naturally occurring element found in drinking water across Minnesota — found in two of the city's wells.

To help resolve those issues, Cloquet is in the planning stages for a $5.6 million filter plant to be constructed this summer at the city's garage site on Armory Road — centrally located among four of the city's wells. Money would come from a low-interest loan offered by the state.

Peterson said manganese hasn't been a concern historically, but federal and state agencies starting flagging risks associated with high levels of the mineral in recent years. Two years ago, the Minnesota Department of Health issued guidelines that recommend a maximum value of manganese in drinking water is 100 parts per billion (ppb) for formula-fed infants and infants that regularly drink tap water. The manganese guidance value for children over 1 year old and adults, including nursing mothers, is 300 ppb.

The 2009 tests revealed that two of the five wells that provide Cloquet with drinking water have high levels of manganese. Well 8 has concentrations of 500 ppb and well 11 has 150 ppb manganese. Well 8 is not currently being used to provide Cloquet residents with drinking water. The study called for plants at both well 8 and well 11. The new plant will treat the water from well 8. The long-term plan is to build a smaller filter plant at well 11, he explained.

Peterson said providing residents with safe drinking water is one of the most important jobs the city does.

"Look at Flint," he said, referring to the city in Michigan where city officials changed the water supply, a move that eventually caused lead in the old pipes to leach into the water and negatively affect the health of its children in particular.

"As public water suppliers, we're all judged on that," Peterson said.

City officials here aim to be transparent and proactive with any water concerns, Peterson said. Because of the city's high water quality, the city only adds fluoride, for teeth, and chlorine, for disinfection. The new treatment plant would add filter beds to the process, which would catch the manganese from well 8 after it's oxidized.

He stressed that the city is being proactive, and that the science on manganese is still a work in progress.

"Is there anything that should keep you up at night? I don't think so," he said, adding that a simple water filter system or pitcher will filter out manganese if people are worried.

"But as a public water supplier, we don't want to be in the position where they finally decide to regulate something after 20-30 years and we've done nothing," Peterson said.

While the new plant will treat the water for manganese and iron — because it's the same process, not because iron is an issue here — Peterson said they are also trying to design the plant to make sure it's flexible enough so engineers can add something or change the process if a new health concern arises.

"We're lucky in Minnesota that water is plentiful," Peterson said. "But we know it's a finite resource that we depend on for drinking water and sanitation purposes."

Peterson said the city is sending out water rate increase notices with next week's bills. The rates are increasing to pay for the investments in infrastructure.

To read about the most recent Cloquet water quality report, copy and paste this link in your search bar:{1D371406-C3A5-48D3-AB32-06C99CCF0C3A}

Good water isn't free

At least two other Carlton County cities are taking steps to improve their drinking water.

Carlton faces a $2.5 million price tag for replace its existing water treatment plant and digging a new well on land across the street from South Terrace Elementary School. The city of Cromwell estimates it will need $350,000 to rehab its existing water system.

Both cities are seeking state grants or low-interest loans to help finance the projects.