Brainerd considers contentious question of chlorinating the city's drinking water

Water Faucet
Officials in Brainerd, Minn., are considering whether to continue using chlorine to treat the city's drinking water. Earlier this month the city told residents to boil their water, after coliform bacteria was detected in the city's water system.

Officials in Brainerd could decide on Tuesday whether to continue using chlorine to treat the city's drinking water.

Residents were advised to boil their water for six days earlier this month, after coliform bacteria was detected in the city's water system. Officials think road construction may have caused the contamination.

The boil advisory has been lifted, and the city's water is safe to drink. Brainerd Public Utilities is temporarily chlorinating the water supply to make sure there's no bacteria. The utilities commission will discuss chlorinating its water supply on a regular basis at its 9 a.m. Tuesday meeting.

Currently, Brainerd is the largest city in Minnesota that doesn't regularly chlorinate its water, only doing so when there's an issue.

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Brainerd Public Utilities Director Todd Wicklund said boil water advisories have been issued four or five times during his 21-year tenure with BPU. When advisories happen, they affect schools, businesses, hospitals and nursing homes, he said.

“I know that there's still a large number of folks that think we can survive a boil order and just get it fixed up and back the way it was,” Wicklund said. “But I think the time has come where we have to take a serious look at a better plan for protecting the water supply.”

Some of BPU's 5,000 customers have strong opinions, and want the city's old water back.

Brainerd has a long history of fighting additives to the city's drinking water. It was the last Minnesota city to add fluoride to its water after a bitter legal battle in the 1970s.

Some fluoride opponents were willing to go to jail over the issue, Wicklund said.

“Some of those folks are still around, and they remember those things,” he said. “And they just think less is better. If we didn't have anything in the water, that's just the way they want it to be.”

But Wicklund said these days, there are more serious threats to drinking water supplies with which they have to contend.

“You can't lose the confidence of your customers,” he said. “That's not a good thing.”

Wicklund said sometimes the chlorine taste or smell is actually due to not enough chlorine added to the water.

“If you've done it right, you shouldn't even taste it,” he said. “That's where the art of making water’s going to come into play.”

Potential culprit: Water main construction

The most recent incident in Brainerd may have been caused by road construction. Officials found total coliform in the water, which can signal the presence of other bacteria, such as E. coli, although no E. coli has been detected.

The Minnesota Department of Health leaves the decision whether to permanently chlorinate up to individual municipalities. There is no statewide requirement.

There are just a handful of communities smaller than Brainerd that don't, said Karla Peterson, the department's community public water supply supervisor.

There are pros and cons to chlorination, she said. Adding chlorine to drinking water creates byproducts that can be carcinogenic.

Peterson said a well-maintained distribution system that pulls water from good wells may not need to disinfect it with chlorine. 

“A lot of the communities that choose to disinfect permanently — they consider it sort of an extra barrier,” she said. “So that if something does happen during water main construction, they just have that one additional layer of protection.”

Peterson said one way to remove the taste and odor of chlorine is to put water in a pitcher in the refrigerator and let it sit uncovered for a few hours.

One of those affected by the recent water incident was Dawn Stienka, owner of Coco Moon, a coffee shop on a busy corner of downtown Brainerd.

Person smiles behind a bar02
Dawn Stienka, owner of Coco Moon Coffee Bar in Brainerd, works behind the counter on Friday.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Stienka has worked at the coffee shop for 18 years, and owned it since 2022. When the boil water advisory was issued on Aug. 10, she was determined not to close Coco Moon’s doors.

“I was doing everything I could to figure out how to stay open, because I need that income,” she said. “As a small business, we can't just shut our doors. So I was willing to do whatever it took to stay open.”

Stienka brought in bottled water and over 100 pounds of ice a day so the shop could keep making lattes and chai.

“Because our customers are like family, they just bought the limited menu,” she said. “They just were happy enough to come in and get something than nothing.”

Stienka has mixed feelings about chlorination. She said chlorine affects the taste of her coffee and lemonade. If it continues, she may have to install a reverse osmosis filter. 

“I would say we take a lot of pride in this community with not chlorinating our water,” she said. 

But Stienka also sees the potential for more boil advisories in the future. And she said she would take chlorination over any of her customers getting ill.

“I would much rather chlorinate and people not be sick, than the vice versa of having to watch the city hall distribute water for a whole weekend because some of its residents couldn't afford to go buy water,” she said.