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Grand Rapids to chlorinate water in response to Legionnaires' outbreak

A large, blue metal water tower that reads, "Grand Rapids It's in Minnesota's Nature" in capital black letters stands against a blue sky
Maria Hileman
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KAXE
The water tower in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, in early 2024.

Grand Rapids Public Utilities' decision comes after months of testing and analysis. The city's outbreak has lasted over a year, with three new cases in the last 10 days.

GRAND RAPIDS — The days are numbered for one of the last remaining unchlorinated city water systems in Minnesota.

Grand Rapids Public Utilities General Manager Julie Kennedy said the utility will install a permanent chlorination system to treat the water. This decision comes after months of testing and analysis and more than a year after the city’s first case of Legionnaires’ disease — a pneumonia-like illness caused by breathing in water vapor containing legionella bacteria that can sometimes be severe. Three new cases of the disease were reported in the city in recent weeks.

GRPU aims to have the system ready by July 1, though Kennedy said it will take weeks to months for the disinfectant to spread throughout the distribution system. Even then, it won’t be a perfect solution.

“The chlorination isn’t the end-all-be-all, we’ll be safe forever,” she said in a phone interview Monday, May 20. “The best practices on plumbing and premise plumbing in buildings still needs to happen even after the chlorination.”

Grand Rapids and Brainerd are the only large Minnesota cities without chlorinated water, although city of Brainerd officials, too, are grappling with the idea of permanent chlorination to combat copper erosion and prevent bacterial contamination.

A Grand Rapids community meeting to discuss disinfection will be 4-6 p.m. June 4 at Yanmar Arena.

Under a moderately high magnification, this colorized scanning electron microscopic image depicts a large grouping of Gram-negative Legionella pneumophila bacteria. These bacteria cause Legionnaires' disease and Pontiac Fever, collectively known as Legionellosis.
Contributed
/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Under a moderately high magnification, this colorized scanning electron microscopic image depicts a large grouping of Gram-negative Legionella pneumophila bacteria. These bacteria cause Legionnaires' disease and Pontiac Fever, collectively known as Legionellosis.

The Minnesota Department of Health reported 20 cases of Legionnaires’ to GRPU since the outbreak began in April 2023, and it’s likely those numbers are higher. While those with pre-existing conditions can sometimes experience severe or even deadly consequences of the disease, others might never know they were infected.

Legionella bacteria occurs naturally in most public water systems and thrives in warm, stagnant and untreated water. To prevent exposure, homeowners should flush fixtures or water systems that haven’t been used in a week or more, keep them clean and ensure their water heater is set to at least 120 degrees.

Kennedy said the health department has not shared any demographic information, including the location of the cases, making it difficult to identify any trends or specific causes. But one theory about the recent increase in cases points to “snowbirds,” who are returning to homes that sat vacant all winter.

The Itasca County Family YMCA and the older Itasca County Jail both returned positive samples when the Minnesota Department of Health conducted investigative testing in December 2023.

"Chlorination isn’t the end-all-be-all, we’ll be safe forever."
Julie Kennedy

The YMCA has since tested negative, according to preliminary results from University of Minnesota testing completed in February. But two Itasca County Jail samples returned positive results, along with one positive sample from the city’s water distribution system. The U of M took samples at five locations throughout Grand Rapids and LaPrairie, which is supplied water by GRPU.

GRPU has conducted weekly testing since April. There have since been no positive results in the distribution system but plumbing within buildings across the city has returned positive tests.

“What we’ve seen is great success in once we notify someone and they actually implement water management practices that the subsequent tests ... have come back and been absent,” Kennedy said.

Test results and more information about the outbreak are available at the city of Grand Rapids website. A form for volunteers to sign up to have their home or business sampled is available there.

“[We’re] really just trying to hone in on commonalities or themes as to where these [Legionnaires’ cases] are coming from,” Kennedy said.

Megan Buffington joined the KAXE newsroom in 2024 after graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Originally from Pequot Lakes, she is passionate about educating and empowering communities through local reporting.