WORTHINGTON — As part of a statewide effort, the non-profit, non-partisan organization Citizens League hosted a listening session in Worthington Saturday afternoon to hear concerns from locals about the quality of area drinking water.
Citizens League director of public policy Amanda Koonjbeharry explained that Citizens League was commissioned by the Minnesota Department of Health to collect honest feedback from across the state. The information will inform the creation of a coalition to write a protection plan for drinking water sources.
The general feedback Koonjbeharry heard from community members was that water sustains our community. Individuals aired concerns about algae, lake swimming and hard water.
"We've got to, first of all, not put sewer water into the bloody lake," suggested Ben Weber, referencing the city ordinance that allows for storm water to be emptied into Lake Okabena during certain weather events that make flooding a concern. The policy makes sense, he said, except that in a few places, Worthington's sewer and storm drains cross paths and mix.
Many of the other community members present were unaware of this practice and were taken aback by the news.
The major problem with this system is that it requires a lot more treatment of drinking water in order to meet state standards.
"We have a known issue," Weber said, adding that he believes the solution is to rework the drainage system so storm water and sewer water are always kept separate.
"Quite frankly," he said, "our city has spent way more money on other stuff."
Weber said that he has made inquiries into the reasons for — and possible solutions to — the crossing of sewer and storm water, but "I've not gotten an answer that I'm satisfied with."
"They're not going to answer our questions," lifelong Worthington resident Sarah Cham said.
Others agreed that there's a general lack of confidence in the transparency of city leaders.
"The people in Public Works really try hard," Weber said. "But the problem is, how do you fund it?
"The state needs to get their crap together," he added, pointing out the multi-billion dollar state Health and Human Services budget that means local governments have to cover other issues like lake water quality and water treatment.
There is no question that Worthington's tap water is safe to drink, as it must be tested annually and meet state requirements. However, that technicality does not alleviate the concerns of some local residents.
For example, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources publishes fish consumption guidelines that advise anglers about how many fish from each lake is a safe number to eat in a given time period. For the general population, DNR is not concerned about fish consumption from Lake Okabena, but the most recent guide recommends that children under 15 and women who are or may become pregnant not eat channel catfish, walleye or white suckers caught in Lake Okabena more than once per week, due to mercury contamination.
Community members pointed out that it's important for anglers to know this information, but they may not be aware that it's available, and they may not read English.
Parents listed additional concerns about their children swimming in the lake due to its appearance and odor.
"It's not what you're seeing and smelling — it's what you're not — that should scare you," Weber added, noting salt runoff and pharmaceutical dumping as unseen dangers of lake water.
Cecilia Amadou, who works for the Nobles County Public Health, said that in her experience, many local mothers feel that bottled water is safer for their kids to drink. Bottled water doesn't have added flouride, so children's dental health suffers as a result of the misconception that tap water is unsafe. She called for more education resources, published in multiple languages.
Other noted concerns about bottled water included its expense on a household and the increased recycling burden it creates.
Worthington has hard water due to high iron content in the soil, Weber said, and many community members don't understand what that means or what to do about it.
Natalie Nkashama noted the white residue that sits on top of tap water and leaves a film on sinks and fixtures.
"If it's doing that to the metal," she asked, "what is it doing to my skin?"
Water softeners are not universally available, and renters are at a disadvantage because they cannot control their water quality as well. When a softener or other mechanism breaks down, "we have to wait until our landlords decide to fix it," noted Cheniqua Johnson.
As a conclusion, conversation participants proposed a number of ways the state can help protect local drinking water.
Weber called for an expansion of which elements are tested for in drinking water and an increase in frequency from just one test per year. He also asked for bureaucratic changes that would make it easier for small communities to follow the state standards.
Others stressed the importance of better education about caring for water sources. For example, Nkashama asked, "How do people affect the water in their home?" She noted that water quality is one reason it's better to drop off unused medications at the sheriff's office instead of flushing them.
The group came to a consensus that the community needs to be better informed, and in languages everyone can understand.
"Failure to provide good, clean water will destroy us," Weber said. With more than half of Worthington's population living within 1,000 feet of the lake shore, he noted, water protection is about much more than just drinking or swimming.
"Water is our way of life," he said. "It's about rural survival."
Johnson pointed out that if Worthington has these water concerns, then the smaller surrounding communities do, too.
Koonjbeharry promised the group that she will keep them informed about what happens as a result of their candid observations.