U.S. Water News Online
ANNANDALE, Minn. -- Old west storefronts still line the
main street here, but farm fields are making way for subdivisions in
this town in one of the United States' fastest-growing counties.
Developers are eager to build more houses in a part of the state
where communities settled and thrived around the many lakes and
rivers. But water, a resource that once fostered growth, now
threatens to halt it.
Environmentalists are suing to block a planned water treatment
plant here because they say rivers and lakes are already too polluted
to take more discharge. They say they're supported by the federal
Clean Water Act. The lawsuit has drawn the attention of business
leaders statewide, who fear that the state's water quality problems
could stymie development in growing areas.
Annandale and neighboring Maple Lake sought the plant because
their aging sewer systems can't take any more strain.
"We basically tell them, 'Get in line,"' Annandale Mayor Marian
Harmoning said of the developers who come to city hall, seeking
annexation of farmland for new city neighborhoods.
It's put developers in the unexpected position of pushing for
legislation to improve enforcement of environmental regulations and
clean up Minnesota's dirty water.
"It's a dual message you get," said developer Brad Paumen, owner
of Maple Lake-based Paumen Properties. "One message is we need more
jobs in town, we need more businesses in town, so we need more houses
in town. For the developer, what's frustrating is you buy property,
invest some engineering and incur expenses, and then it gets put on
hold for two years."
Local politicians say they want to see their cities grow, but are
forced to put a hold on it until they're able to expand sewer
"We're caught between a rock and a hard spot," said Maple Lake
Mayor Mike Messina. "We're trying to be environmentally responsible
-- but at what cost?"
The lawsuit, filed by the St. Paul-based Minnesota Center for
Environmental Advocacy, is awaiting arguments in the Minnesota Court
of Appeals. It contends that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
violated the federal Clean Water Act when it granted a permit to the
Annandale-Maple Lake plant.
The $11 million plant in rural Albion Township would discharge
treated wastewater, including phosphorous, into the north fork of the
Crow River, which flows into the Mississippi River. Eventually the
discharge makes its way to southeastern Minnesota's Lake Pepin, which
is fed by the Mississippi.
The MPCA has declared the lake "impaired." That prompts a federal
requirement that Lake Pepin have a state cleanup plan before more
pollutants are permitted. But the MPCA hasn't done that for Lake
Pepin or the Crow River.
"The new plant is adding pollutants to an already-polluted
situation contrary to the clear recommendations of MPCA's own
scientists," the lawsuit states.
MPCA officials say they don't have the money to prepare the
A bipartisan group of state lawmakers, with support from both the
environmental community and business groups, are getting behind a
bill at the Capitol to raise $80 million a year for water testing and
cleanup. The money would come from sewer fees of $36 a year for
homeowners and business fees ranging from $120 to $600 a year,
depending on their size.
The Annandale and Maple Lake mayors say a solution is needed if
they're to capitalize on trends that could see their cities flourish
in the coming years.
Annandale, with 2,800 residents, and Maple Lake, with 1,600, are
on the west end of Wright County, the third-fastest growing county in
Minnesota in the 2000 census, and among the top 100 in growth
nationwide. The area -- about 60 miles west of the Twin Cities and 30
miles south of St. Cloud -- is drawing residents from both
metropolitan areas willing to trade a longer commute for rural
"This is where people want to live," Paumen said. "It's a country
setting, lots of lakes, but also close proximity to jobs and work."
After first mulling separate plants, in 2001 the two cities teamed
up. It's been plagued by controversy from the start, with a separate
lawsuit by neighbors opposed to the plant finally resolved last year.
The two mayors are still hoping for a late summer or early fall start
of construction, but know that it can't proceed until the state
lawsuit is settled.
Mike Robertson, the environmental policy consultant for the
Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said the business community backed the
clean water legislation out of fear that more growing communities
will find themselves in similar situations.
"We're looking at a situation where we could have to be turning
down new industrial properties, new business development," Robertson
said. "It's potentially a huge future issue for the state."
MPCA officials are hoping to beat the lawsuit by arguing that the
added pollutants into Lake Pepin from Annandale and Maple Lake will
be balanced by efforts from nearby Litchfield to significantly reduce
its own phosphorous emissions.
But they admit the underlying issues must be addressed. Part of
the problem, according to Assistant Commissioner Lisa Thorvig, is
that assessing the quality of water and drawing up cleanup plans is a
huge undertaking in a state like Minnesota, which has 11,842 lakes
larger than ten acres.
Right now, just 14 percent of the state's lakes and 8 percent of
its rivers have been tested, with findings that about 40 percent of
those are impaired.
The clean water legislation provides money for more testing and
cleanup of water. Thorvig said the cleanup needs are only going to
grow, though, as more of the state's waterways are tested.
"A century ago, where people settled was based on where the
railroads and the water were," Harmoning said. "In the future, is it
going to be where the sewer capacity is?"
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