Brainerd, Minn., is a town that once described its tap water as "the world's best drink."
That's a big boast in the land of 10,000 lakes and almost as many microbreweries, but the community takes justifiable pride in the pure, cold water pumped from its deep artesian wells.
Until September, when a water main burst during a massive storm that also knocked out power to the water system. Contaminants tainted the water supply, forcing the city to subsist on boiled or bottled water for almost a week.
Now Brainerd, the last city in Minnesota to add fluoride to the water, is considering adding another chemical to the mix: chlorine.
Almost every other town in Minnesota routinely adds chlorine to the municipal water supply to kill the sort of stray bacteria that hobbled Brainerd's hospital, schools, restaurants and businesses and sent the Red Cross to Brainerd to distribute bottled water.
But in Brainerd, chlorine has always been a temporary fix — something added to the water just long enough to decontaminate the system and then removed when residents complained about the taste and smell.
On Oct. 28, the Brainerd Public Utilities Commission will debate whether to permanently chlorinate the city water supply. It's not a popular proposal in a city that fought fluoride for three decades.
"It would be a shame to give up the good-tasting, non-chlorinated water Brainerd residents enjoy for the relatively few times when the possibility of bacteria showing up is a concern," the Brainerd Dispatch lamented in an editorial in early October.
Brainerd Public Utilities Superintendent Scott Magnuson is drawing up a list of chlorine pros and cons for the commission.
"Citizens are calling, saying, 'Please don't chlorinate. We don't like the taste, we don't like the smell,' " he said. Chlorine isn't popular with local bait shops either, he said, or the Department of Natural Resources fish hatchery up the road.
Balancing that, he said, is the safety buffer that chlorine would offer the next time bacteria find their way into the public water supply. So far, he said, "my pros and cons list is pretty even."
This is the third time since 1987 that Brainerd has temporarily added chlorine to decontaminate the water system. For most communities, it only takes one scare to switch to full-time chlorination, said Karla Peterson, who supervises the community public water supply unit for the Minnesota Department of Health.
"It's a real hassle to issue a boil water notice. Nobody likes to have to do it," Peterson said. "It's expensive [and] it costs the community dollars every day they have to boil their water."
The larger the water system, the harder it is for communities to keep the water supply bacteria-free without chlorine, she said. Brainerd, population 14,000, is one of the last cities of its size not to chlorinate — along with fellow holdouts Grand Rapids, Hastings, North St. Paul and South St. Paul.
The government might have mandated fluoride in the water, but when it comes to chlorine, the state leaves it up to individual communities to decide. The clear health benefits, Peterson said, have to be balanced by the risks of storing the chemicals, the hazardous byproducts chlorine can create in the water supply and the cost of retooling an entire municipal water system.
"It's not a one-size-fits-all solution, especially for smaller communities," she said. "We provide the information they need to make that decision, but it ends up being in their lap."