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Local leaders, agencies discuss watershed

FAIRMONT– Fairmont City Hall’s council chambers was full Thursday evening during a joint work session that included members of the Fairmont City Council, Martin County Commissioners and Martin Soil and Water Conservation District supervisors. The topic: the Fairmont Chain of Lakes watershed.

The work session was planned after Fairmont City Council’s discussion on dredging the mouth of Dutch Creek and getting core samples of the sediment in Fairmont’s lakes.

Jesse Walters of the Martin Soil and Water Conservation District facilitated the meeting. He said the objective was to discuss water quality and review local conservation efforts in the Fairmont Chain of Lakes watershed.

“We appreciate everyone’s concerns about water quality in the community,” Walters said.

As it was a work session with elected officials, no questions were accepted from the public during the work session but Walters said they would plan another meeting for that at another date.

Walters gave a brief overview of what Martin SWCD has been doing regarding the watershed lately. He explained that watershed is any water the will flow into Budd Lake, which is the city’s water supply. He said the sizeof the watershed is about 26,000 acres.

He spoke about how the watershed became a priority to Martin SWCD, starting in 2016 when he was hired.

In May 2016 Walters shared that the nitrate levels in the city’s drinking water exceeded the Minnesota Department of Health’s guidelines. That set the Fairmont Chain of Lakes watershed as a priority for Martin SWCD.

“That kicked off meetings with a whole slew of different agencies,” Walters said.

Martin SWCD applied for grants to address pollutant concerns it found in the chain of lakes, which included phosphorus, sediment and nitrogen.

Some of the practices Martin SWCD has implemented include water and sediment control basins, wetland restoration and prairie restoration.

Fairmont’s Director of Public Works and City Engineer, Troy Nemmers, also talked about the nitrate issues in 2016 and what the city has done to combat it.

“We looked at what possible solutions we might have to address that issue. In the short term we used the existing well that’s plumbed into the city’s water treatment plant,” Nemmers said.

In the long term they looked at mechanical treatment options and standing operating procedures. The city also worked with the Minnesota Department of Health to develop a nitrate action plan, which the water plant currently follows.

“We were able to obtain a grant from the department of health to install an in-line nitrate monitoring system so we have real-time data for nitrates coming in from the lakes,” he said.

Nemmers touched on other collaborative efforts the city has engaged in with Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the state departments of health and agriculture.

He said despite the bad position Fairmont was in, a good thing came out of it was the city received support from different agencies. This led the city to receive a $175,000

grant to install a field-scale bioreactor with passive heating to aid nitrate removal in cooler springtime months.

“We also were able to obtain Lessard Sams funding for habitat restoration and natural water treatment of the wetlands,” Nemmers said.

Finally, Nemmers touched on habitat restoration, including the Northern Pike spawning habitat and a habitat for Blanding’s turtles, which are endangered in this area.

Paul Davis and Scott MacLean with the MPCA were part of the discussion virtually.

Davis, who is based in the Mankato office, said his primary work area is the greater Blue Earth River watershed. MacLean is also in Mankato and shares a focus on the Blue Earth River watershed.

The largest cities in the Blue Earth River Watershed include Fairmont and Mankato, though it covers 992,000 acres across eight counties.

Davis said, regarding water quality, there are four main things they try to protect: aquatic consumption, aquatic recreation, aquatic life and drinking water.

The core actions MPCA takes regarding the watershed includes monitoring through chemical and biological data collection, assess by using collected data and comparing it to the standards and listing waters that don’t meet the standard as “impaired.”

“Being impaired isn’t good but it’s not a horrible thing. It just means that we’re not meeting the standards and need to develop a plan to get back to that,” Davis said.

Moving to the subject of Fairmont, Davis said the primary impairments are fish assessments and nutrients in the lakes.

“When we talk about nutrients in Fairmont we’re talking about phosphorus. Phosphorous is a nutrient that drives that production of algae. When the conditions are right on hot, still days, algae can grow to be a problem,” Davis said.

Data regarding phosphorus levels in Hall Lake over the years was shared.

“When we look at the data now, the lakes almost look like they’re doing okay,” Davis said.

He said they did some sampling this year, but it was a drought year so might not have provided complete date.

“You’re always going to have a bank of phosphorus in the sediment. Every lake is going to have that. It’s just a matter of reducing that over time, limiting what’s coming in from the watershed….remember, these are southern Minnesota lakes, they’ve got algae, they’re going to be green. It’s just a matter of trying to reduce those bad events from happening,” Davis said.

“These numbers look pretty good but the goal is to still improve that water quality so you don’t have those really nasty algae blooms,” he said.

Moving to the topic of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in fish, Davis said he had some good news.

PCBs in fish in Budd Lake were initially listed in 1993 and recent sampling has shown the concentration has gone down quite a bit. Davis said they need to re-sample the same fish and compare it and if it’s below the standard, they can remove the listing on Budd Lake.

Commissioner Kathy Smith asked how long it would take to get the impairment delisted. Davis said if they can do the sampling soon, it could be done in a few years.

Davis also provided coring information. He said they’re not experts on the matter but have done some sampling across the state.

He shared that reasons to core are to develop history of sedimentation of the lake, identify “hot spot” sources of contamination and calculate cubic yardage and cost for sediment removal.

“Sediment sampling, that’s more of a grab, a device used to grab the top part of the sediment sample. That can give you an idea of what the phosphorus is in the lake,” Davis said.

Council member Britney Kawecki asked if Davis would recommend getting a core sample from the mouth of Dutch Creek now since the water levels are low.

Davis said, “It would depend on what kind of sampling you’re looking to do. What are you trying to find out with the sample.”

“I don’t know that finding the chemical makeup would help you out. I don’t know that you need to do a lot of testing on the sediment,” he added.

Kawecki said she thinks core samples would show that sediment has toxins in it. She asked if sampling the water at the mouth of Dutch Creek before it enters Hall Lake is done.

“I don’t know that coring and sampling the sediment would give you a much different picture than the water sampling coming out of Dutch Creek,” Davis said.

To wrap up the discussion, Walters spoke about one watershed, one plan, a comprehensive watershed management plan in Minnesota. Walters also said they plan to hold a public meeting in spring of 2022 which will include the opportunity for the public to raise concerns or ask questions.

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