By Amber Kispert-Smith, Woodbury Bulletin, June 1st, 2015

Lake St. Croix Beach resident Jim Golden and Lake St. Croix Beach City Council Member Jim Unker have come out as opponents of Afton’s proposed wastewater project because of the potential threat to Valley Creek. (Staff photo by Amber Kispert-Smith)

Lake St. Croix Beach resident Jim Golden and Lake St. Croix Beach City Council Member Jim Unker have come out as opponents of Afton’s proposed wastewater project because of the potential threat to Valley Creek. (Staff photo by Amber Kispert-Smith)

For many years, the communities of Afton, St. Mary’s Point and Lake St. Croix Beach have found themselves working collaboratively through joint powers agreements and a mayor alliance.

“We work together on fire, we work together on police,” Afton City Administrator Ron Moorse said. “We have tended to work well together historically.”

However, recently the communities have found themselves on opposite sides of the line thanks to differing views on Afton’s proposed sewer project, specifically the proposed treatment site, at 2318 St. Croix Trail.

“It borders Lake St. Croix Beach and it devalues our properties,” Lake St. Croix Beach City Council Member Jim Unker said. “The effluent is going to run underground into our aquifers, not theirs.

“It’s coming from hotels and marinas and restaurants, there’s no telling what they’re putting down the drains.”

The Citizens for Valley Creek group held a fund-raiser last Saturday, at the Beach Bar in Lake St. Croix Beach, to discuss its opposition.

The project

The proposed system, which will serve about 70 houses and 30 businesses in the Old Village, would be a cluster system and include a large subsurface wastewater treatment system – essentially a larger version of what an individual home is currently served by.

The proposed wastewater treatment system consists of a recirculating gravel filter and nitrogen reduction process designed to meet secondary treatment levels of contaminants.

After going through these treatment processes, the treated water will recharge the local groundwater aquifer through infiltration beds.

“A key focus of this whole project is to improve water quality,” Moorse said. “We’re doing a substantial amount of pre-treatment before it actually gets into a drain field.”

The entire project is expected to cost $4 million.

The 25-acre site on St. Croix Trail was chosen based on its available soils, the lot size and the proximity to the Old Village, Moorse said.

“We were looking for sites that had the proper soils, ideally a site that was big enough to provide some buffering to the neighboring properties,” he said, “and a site that we could relatively easily pump the wastewater to.”

In terms of soils, Moorse said the chosen site is ideal for the project since it is comprised of nearly 30 feet of sand and gravel.

“It allows water to relatively readily percolate through verses a clay soil where the water gets kind of stuck and doesn’t really want to go through,” he said. “It works out great.”

The opposition

From the beginning, the cities of Lake St. Croix Beach and St. Mary’s Point have expressed their opposition to Afton’s proposed sewer project, specifically the location of the treatment site since it borders the communities.

“This has got to be one of the unfriendliest things I’ve ever seen one community do to another,” Unker said.

The project’s facilities plan was approved by Afton City Council in July of 2013.

In the early stages, however, the two communities presented a joint powers agreement to Afton City Council in hopes of helping steer the project in the right direction, while allowing their residents to benefit.

“In a way we could control what was occurring there by becoming a joint power,” Unker said. “We would have had a majority say, which could have quashed it or our citizens might have benefited, making it a bit more palpable – right now we have residents who are right across the street and they can’t hook up.”

The concerns from Lake St. Croix Beach and St. Mary’s Point primarily relate to potential impacts on Valley Creek.

“My only concern is that it’s literally within 200 feet of Valley Creek on a downward slope,” Lake St. Croix Beach resident Jim Golden said. “Valley Creek is a very small body of water and its super delicate.”

Additionally, Unker said there is concern over neighboring wells being contaminated.

In an effort to get their concerns addressed, residents of both communities petitioned the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), which is responsible for permitting the project, to order an environmental impact statement (EIS).

Additionally, the communities petitioned for a contested case hearing.

“We want a good, extensive study to determine if this is a suitable location,” said Golden, who also owns property in Afton.

In an effort to support their claims, Lake St. Croix Beach and St. Mary’s Point have hired an environmental engineering firm.

Moorse said the claims that the project will impact Valley Creek are not founded.

“The technical information has always said that we’re not going to have an impact on Valley Creek,” he said. “It’s frustrating that we continue to provide the technical information that would have you reach one conclusion about how safe this is, and they are simply not accepting that technical information – they just believe that there could be, or may be some impact.”

Discharge from the facility is expected to flow the northeast, away from Valley Creek, Moorse said.

Going to the state

The project will be going to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Citizen’s Advisory Board on June 23, where the board will not only review the permit application but also the contested case hearing and EIS petitions.

Ralph Pribble, public information officer for the MPCA, said there were not any significant environmental concerns identified in the environmental assessment worksheet (EAW), which was presented earlier this spring.

“Our job in all this is to evaluate the environmental review that was done,” he said, “and the project as proposed meets all the environmental requirements of the state – there would not be any significant impacts.”

In addition to the city’s EAW, MPCA also reviewed 50 public comments related to the project.

If the MPCA should order the EIS, or the contested case hearing, Afton will not be able to begin construction in 2015 as planned, which will in turn impact its other upcoming projects including County Road 21, the city’s levee and local roads.

“Everything gets put off for another construction year,” Moorse said.

Moorse said he is optimistic that the project will proceed and that a resolution can be reached with Lake St. Croix Beach and St. Mary’s Point.

“Once this project is complete and is operational and everyone sees that there aren’t any impacts,” he said, “I don’t think it’ll be something that will continue to cause a rift between the cities.”

Finding a resolution

Golden said the only way to ensure the safety of the project, and the protection of Valley Creek, is to move the site.

“I think you have to move it,” he said. “There’s no way to pump 60,000 gallons a day uphill towards the creek.

“We’ve sent them numerous other spots – their site is the most profitable, not the most environmental.”

Additionally, Unker and Golden said a regional solution needs to be found for the entire area given that all communities experience the same issues with flooding and contaminated groundwater.

“We need a dialogue with everyone – city, state, county officials – about a regional solution,” Unker said. “We need to think about running a sewer pipe all the way up (County Road) 95, so we don’t have these piecemeal fixes.”

“This is not a long-term solution,” Golden said. “It’s a short-term Band-Aid.”