The city of Shakopee and Shakopee Public Utilities have long had their disagreements.
The storm began last summer, when water connection fees nearly barred a donated splash pad from being installed at Lion’s Park. It rolled through again this year, when the city took aim at SPUC’s transparency standards and called into question former Utilities Manager John Crooks’ salary, which was found to have exceeded the state salary cap.
Now, the city is calling into question the quality of the water provided by SPU, with staff members and commissioners of the utility calling the city's claims far-fetched.
In August, the Shakopee City Council approved a ballot question for November, which will ask voters to either keep or dissolve the Shakopee Public Utilities Commission. In recent weeks, the city of Shakopee has said on its webpage with information regarding the ballot question that although Shakopee’s water meets the standards, it “does not mean Shakopee’s ground water is high quality.”
Staff members and commissioners within the utility, including Water Superintendent Lon Schemel, say the city’s water quality argument is full of "half-truths" with ulterior motives. SPUC President Deb Amundson said in an interview with the Valley News this week some of the city’s information is “just wrong.” A representative from the Minnesota Department of Health's drinking water program said there are “no issues” related to Shakopee's water safety based on current contaminant levels.
An important chemical to keep a watchful eye on when it comes to water quality is nitrate levels, said Stew Thornley, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Health’s drinking water program. Nitrate, which is found in fertilizer, commonly contaminates wells in agricultural areas. Minnesota’s maximum contaminant level for nitrate is 10 parts per million.
More than 10 ppm of nitrate in drinking water can cause blue baby syndrome — which starves babies of oxygen — and other adverse health effects, especially in pregnant women and babies, Thornley said.
Shakopee’s Well 5, which is on the eastern side of the city, is the well with the highest nitrate level in the city, which hovers around 7 ppm, according to a consumer confidence report provided by MDH that included information on Shakopee's 2019 drinking water.
The city’s highest historical nitrate level ever tested was 12 ppm, according to Shakopee's 2018 Comprehensive Water System Plan. City Administrator Bill Reynolds said this is cause for concern and said although Shakopee’s water is under regulatory limits, it’s far higher than surrounding communities’ nitrate levels.
According to the 2019 consumer confidence report, Savage’s average nitrate levels are around .44 ppm, Jordan’s are .42 ppm and Chaska’s are .76 ppm. Shakopee’s nitrate levels range between .78 and 7 ppm, depending on the well.
But still, some communities operate under higher nitrate levels. According to Shakopee’s 2018 Comprehensive Water System Plan, 51 Minnesota cities have shown nitrate levels greater than 8 ppm since 1994, including Hastings and Northfield.
Thornley said while Shakopee’s Well 5 is “up there” in nitrate levels, 7 ppm isn’t a level that should alarm residents, nor would it necessarily require a treatment plant.
“Adults like you and me... even if we were over the (nitrate contaminant) limit, we could handle it. It’s a matter of stomach acid,” Thornley said. “A young baby can convert the nitrate into something toxic, and that’s what can cause blue baby syndrome, which affects oxygen. That’s a serious one.”
A new groundwater protection rule administered by the Department of Agriculture restricts fertilizer in areas where ground wells show nitrate levels above 5.4 ppm to prevent further nitrate contamination. Shakopee is one of those areas.
Thornley said the MDH closely monitors nitrate levels and, while it’s important for Shakopee consumers to stay vigilant, said there is currently no concern regarding the safety of Shakopee’s drinking water.
The city’s website states that “while Shakopee’s drinking water is considered safe and has not historically exceeded the maximum contaminant levels (MCL) established by the Environmental Protection Agency, that does not mean Shakopee’s ground water is high quality.”
When asked about this statement, Thornley said from the Department of Health’s perspective, “high quality, in terms of what we regulate, would mean meeting the standards.” Therefore, Shakopee’s water is “high quality” from the MDH’s perspective, Thornley said.
Thornley added that maximum contaminant level standards are set by toxicologists at the Environmental Protection Agency who account for an abundance of caution, so if one well rises slightly above the limit, while it would need to be addressed, it wouldn’t cause an immediate adverse health effect on its consumers.
Another dangerous contaminant that can appear in drinking water is radium, which is associated with an increased risk of cancer. Shakopee's levels range between 0 and 1.1 ppm, according to the 2019 drinking water report — well below the maximum contaminant level of 5.4 ppm.
Schemel said he “doesn’t understand” the city’s claims that Shakopee’s water quality is a cause for concern.
“If you’re going half the speed limit, what are you in violation of?” Schemel said.
Shakopee’s water comes from aquifers and wells scattered across the city. There are 18 wells clustered in different parts of town, and instead of having one centralized treatment plant to address specific chemical levels, each cluster of wells is treated with chlorine and fluoride at one of the well sites before the water is distributed. Chlorine disinfects the water, and the fluoride is added for dental protection, Thornley said.
The treatment at the individual well sites is cost effective, Schemel said, because the water stays local.
Instead of actively treating nitrate, wells that are higher in nitrate are blended with other wells lower in nitrate — something the city is critical of.
“The water is just under maximum for nitrates and it accomplishes that by blending less contaminated water with more contaminated water in the delivery pipe to just fall under the amounts allowed,” Reynolds said.
The city stated on its website that Shakopee “is one of the only — and the largest — metro communities without a water filter plant.”
Thornley said it’s not entirely unusual for a city to operate in lieu of a water filter plant. Rochester, for example, operates without one, with treatment at each well site just like Shakopee. Its average nitrate levels are .49 ppm, according to its most recent consumer confidence report.
Thornley said the fact that Shakopee doesn’t need a treatment plant to meet contaminant level standards is a positive thing.
“If you wanted to treat all this water, like the city claims... you’re going to have to run pipes to a centralized treatment center, and then back to the storage capacity tanks,” Schemel said. “Which means tearing up miles and miles of streets. So you’re talking tens of millions of dollars in roadwork.”
Reynolds said if the utility is dissolved in November, the city will look into how it can filter its water in a cost-effective manner.
One option, Reynolds said, is to look into neighboring communities and partner with them.
“We will analyze what is best practice, fits with our City, and seek to implement,” he said. “SPUC has been collecting funds for a water treatment plant for years, so there should be funds available to address this issue regardless of the route chosen.”
On Sept. 21, SPUC approved plans to move forward with a water treatment plant feasibility study, which will engage residents in the process of deciding whether a treatment plant makes sense.
SPU Commissioner Jody Brennan, who is also a city councilmember, cast the dissenting vote on the feasibility study for the purposes of shopping for lower bids on the project.
Commissioner Mathew Meyer, said of Brennan, "I’m assuming she’s reading something from some staffer at the city," and adding he’d be "all for delaying (the water treatment feasibility study) and putting it up for a bid... but bidding takes time, and because of the concern created by the city staff… I don’t want to delay at all."
Because the water already complies with safety regulations, Thornley said residents may desire a treatment plant to address aesthetic concerns, such as softening the water or lowering iron and manganese levels, which can cause discoloration. Hard water can also cause damage to pipes, Thornley said.
In September 2019, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and city of Prior Lake opened a $20 million treatment facility. The plant addresses aesthetic issues, including the removal of iron and manganese, and the softening of the water. The facility filters about 2,400 gallons per minute. Filtered water is sold to Prior Lake for use throughout the community.
Meyer said at the Sept. 21 SPUC meeting that “it would have been nice if the city had consulted with us before creating a public concern — pretty much panic — about talking about how our water is dangerous, with the need for a water treatment plant, when there is no study for that.”
Lehman, who typically casts the lone dissenting vote in city manners related to SPUC criticism, said in an interview with the Valley News that he “can’t even imagine” the cost of filtering and softening all of Shakopee’s water.
“You’re never going to get heavenly water. You can disinfect it, add fluoride, put it through a water softener, but you’re always going to have other impacts from the actions you’ve taken,” he said.
SPU Commissioner Kayden Fox said in a statement to the Valley News he has "concerns with water quality" and that he wants "SPUC to work with the city properly assess and remediate any quality issues found. Not violating state mandates is a low bar for water quality and we can, and need to, do better."
Amundson, on the other hand, said she was particularly offended with the city’s website reference to Flint, Michigan as an example of the importance of safe drinking water. The city's reference online states: "Examples such as Flint, Mich., Milwaukee, Wis., or even the eastern area of the Twin Cities metro highlight how important safe drinking water is."
Amundson called the name-dropping a “red herring.”
“(Flint) was a horrible experience, and to try to put us in that same category is just frightening,” Amundson said.
Schemel emphasized that water chemistry doesn’t change overnight, and the situation in Flint was due to a treatment change, which caused lead to leak into the water.
“We’re talking about mother nature, which changes very slowly.”
Thornley said the Department of Health understands “why people might have special concerns and we can provide information on that,” but emphasized that Shakopee residents are drinking safe water.
“What I’ve read so far from the city is, you take a grain of truth, but you spin it in a negative direction,” Schemel said of the city's stances on SPUC's water quality.
Reynolds said the city “has a legal, moral and ethical responsibility to provide factual information to the public. These facts arise from SPUC’s own documents and consultants, Minnesota State departments, independent studies and legal analysis. Most have not seen the light of day due to lack of oversight and accountability at the Utility. The public doesn’t have to believe what we tell them. They can read it for themselves.”
Correction: Previous reporting noted Shakopee's Well 5 is on the western side of the city. It is, in fact, on the eastern side. This article has been updated accordingly.
Clarification: After publication Superintendent Schemel clarified that he estimates the cost to build a centralized water treatment facility would mean tens of millions of dollars in roadwork, not tens of thousands as previously quoted.