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Bemidji and Northern Township officials discuss future of municipal water systems around Lake Bemidji

The Bemidji City Council and Northern Township Board met for a combined meeting on Nov. 16. The agenda item receiving the most attention was in relation to township entities around the lake potentially having access to municipal water services.

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Bemidji City Hall.
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BEMIDJI -- The extension of city water services and how it comes into play with annexation was a hot topic during a joint meeting between Bemidji and Northern Township officials.

The meeting, held Tuesday evening, included a lengthy discussion regarding public and private water systems, with an emphasis on those around Lake Bemidji. Before the conversation was underway on the subject, the officials were informed about the situation up to this point.

According to the presentation, on the east side of Lake Bemidji, there are several older systems, as well as some with no data. The presentation noted that potentially 60% are not compliant.

The presentation also touched on Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge, which has until next November to have a plan in place for coming into compliance with water/sewer guidelines. Earlier this year, Ruttger's requested a connection to the city's water system.

However, there are other township properties between the resort and the city limits which could be impacted. During the meeting, Northern Township Board Member Michael Kelly said constituents drew a hard line against annexation.

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"We met with our residents in our public meeting in early November," Kelly said. "They made it perfectly clear they're not interested in annexation. What they also made clear to us is that they want Northern Township to move in a direction where either we cooperate with the city to get municipal services, which seem to be available, or we go our own way.

"One thing I keep coming back to is, whether it's a district that involves both the city and the township, or a memorandum of understanding to extend services, it's loud and clear that it can't be at the expense of any landmass from Northern Township."

Over the last decades, three sections of Northern Township were brought within the city limits, based on an orderly annexation agreement approved in 2004. The agreement brought the three sections in with three phases.

The first phase, in 2010, brought in land between Robertson Drive NW and Norwood Drive NE, bordered by Lake Bemidji to the east and Irvine Avenue to the west. The second phase, in 2015, included property along Birchmont Drive and Bemidji Avenue, also bordered by Lake Bemidji and Irvine Avenue to the east and west, and up north to Elm Street NE.

The final phase, in 2020, extended the city northward from Anne Street up to Lakewood Drive, and westward to U.S. Highway 71 and the Bemidji Regional Airport. The annexation brought in more than 500 residents to the city's population.

In his response to Kelly, Bemidji City Manager Nate Mathews said a district to share services is likely off the table, at least for the near future.

"I do think districts have a lot of merit in communities, but it does take a long time to create and an act of the Minnesota Legislature is needed," Mathews said. "From my perception, it feels like we lost that opportunity to create a district because Ruttger's needs to have a plan in place.

"We have a six-month window here to decide what the solution is," Mathews said. "Because, if we take a look at when things need to be constructed and built, the design work (for Ruttger's) would have to happen next year. It's a really compressed timeline."

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"We need to know what will happen to Ruttger's and that's what will need to be focused on now, and perhaps, in future meetings," Bemidji Public Works Director Craig Gray said. "If we don't decide to put a pipe there, we need to notify them of that so they can start working on a private system. That's what, as staff, you guys really need to bear down on."

According to Gray, the council did pass a motion that would allow Ruttger's to be annexed and connected to the city's water system, without other residents along the path having to be brought into the city.

Officials from both government units noted how more discussion is needed to come to the best solution for the Ruttger's situation. They also agreed on coming to a solution to ensure Lake Bemidji's water quality.

The quality of the lake was brought up after Gray noted how phosphorus levels have been rising.

"In terms of water quality, when we did the phosphorus prevention ditch project on Lake Irving, they looked at the quality of Lake Bemidji," Gray said. "Lake Irving is classified as an impaired water for phosphorous and Lake Bemidji is right on the edge and it may not be long until it's an impaired water."

"Anything is possible if we stop, go back and get a committee together with all of the players," Kelly said. "This is an opportunity I do want to see happen, but I also can't go against what our residents want."

"I ask myself as a new mayor and member of the city council, how important as a community have we deemed this," said Mayor Jorge Prince. "To me, if we see this as a crisis, as something that needs to be solved, then we'll sit down and work things out. But I think we'll have to be willing to be a little flexible, knowing that Lake Bemidji is ultimately a pristine asset of our entire community, and we need to do what we can to protect it."

Matthew Liedke is a reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He is originally from International Falls and now resides in Bemidji. He's a 2009 graduate of Rainy River Community College and a 2012 graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead. At the Pioneer, he covers government, politics, health and economic development. He can be reached at (218) 333-9791 or by email at mliedke@bemidjipioneer.com.
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