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First Reading: A stinky situation

Published (3/21/2008)
By Brian Hogenson
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The St. Croix Valley Wastewater Treatment Plant in Oak Park Heights, above, serves as a good example of a community seeking to improve its wastewater infrastucture. It was named the best “medium advanced facility” in the Great Lakes region by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2001, according to the  Metropolitan Council.

The last thing someone wants to encounter while paddling around one of Minnesota’s lakes or rivers is something they flushed out of their homes days earlier. But that’s the reality in far too many Minnesota communities in need of new wastewater treatment infrastructure.

According to the Pollution Control Agency, wastewater is the used water from homes, farms and business in communities. It contains materials that are harmful to ground and surface waters including metals, organic pollutants, sediment, bacteria and viruses. These harmful materials can cause serious environmental contamination and threaten human health.

Because of outdated wastewater infrastructure, or no wastewater infrastructure at all, many communities are pumping sewage into ground and surface waters. And fixing the equipment or expanding capacity is proving to be a budget-buster for small communities that lack resources to fund needed improvements on their own.

After the outhouse

Before running water was available, outhouses were common throughout the state. When indoor plumbing became the norm, the need to treat water contaminated with human waste became a primary concern for communities. The earliest method was to discharge wastewater into cesspools that had outlet pipes, or straight pipes, leading to ditches and streams. The Works Progress Administration built some simple systems for wastewater collection and treatment in the 1930s, but most rural Minnesotans continued to discharge untreated wastewater into the state’s ground and surface waters.

Many communities that have wastewater treatment facilities in place as well as individual residences with septic systems have outdated infrastructure that was not designed to last this long.

Rep. Jeremy Kalin (DFL-North Branch), who sponsors three bills addressing community wastewater treatment issues, said many wells that were installed in rural areas in the 1960s and 1970s had an expected lifespan of only 25 years.

Wastewater treatment plants face the same problem as roads, according to Kalin. “There is a lot of expansion and growth but little maintenance on existing structures.”

When these wastewater systems fail, sewage seeps into Minnesota’s aquifers and streams, where it becomes a public health issue, running the risk of contaminating ground and drinking water.

“Nothing is worse for public health than human sewage,” Kalin said.

Upgrading the system

Legislators are making moves to rectify wastewater problems around the state.

Currently, 43 bills relating to wastewater infrastructure improvements and sewer system upgrades have been introduced in the House, with the vast majority designed to help small communities.

“It’s a good investment in our water and in our future,” said Rep. Bud Heidgerken (R-Freeport), the sponsor of two wastewater bills. “We need to help these towns build their infrastructure.”

Wastewater challenges

According to “Small Community Wastewater Needs in Minnesota,” a PCA report released in February, small communities face special challenges in finding solutions to their wastewater problems.

Many are not connected to a modern wastewater treatment facility. The report identified 48 communities with known or suspected community surface discharges through the use of community straight pipes, as well as an estimated 55 communities with some possible individual straight pipes.

Some barriers for small community wastewater improvements include:

• the low income of community residents combined with the high costs for conventional wastewater collection and treatment creates a situation with insufficient funding available at the local level;

• small communities lack a process for working through the issues that arise in managing a wastewater system;

• lack of technical support by engineers;

• misunderstandings caused by a lack of coordination between multiple organizations and groups;

• regulatory and capacity impediments; and

• residents who have never had to pay for wastewater treatment and disposal object to paying for the service.

A perfect storm

Wastewater issues can create a perfect storm that continues to burden a small community even after the necessary improvements are made. Harris, nestled in north-central Chisago County, is a perfect example.

“That is one of the more severe cases, just because of the size of the community and the cost of fixing it,” Rep. Rob Eastlund (R-Isanti) said.

Harris is comprised of about 450 homes, but only 126 are connected to the city wastewater system. The rest of the homes are in outlying areas and use individual septic systems.

In order for Harris to attract business and grow like neighboring communities have in the last decade, a significant upgrade and expansion of the wastewater system was needed, but before that could be accomplished the existing system needed repair.

“Everything around us has been growing, but we haven’t been able to grow,” Harris Mayor Rick Smisson said. “Our sewer system is leaking 25 percent into the groundwater per day, so we can’t grow with new hookups until we deal with it.”

Facilitated by a loan from the Department of Employment and Economic Development, a new system is going online in Harris that includes new wastewater treatment and water treatment plants.

Now that the improvements have been made to the system, the new problem is paying for it.

If Harris does not experience some very significant growth in the coming years and is forced to take the cost of the loan and spread it out across the people on the system, Smisson said sewer and water bills would go to over $780 per month per household.

That would be considered an impossible utilities burden for most communities, but it would be an even bigger pain for the residents of Harris.

“Seventy percent of the core of the community is below the poverty line,” Smisson said. “Thirty percent is considered very poor.”

Small communities represented by Heidgerken face a similar set of unfortunate circumstances.

Because their current system cannot support growth, Heidgerken said St. Martin is requesting funding for wastewater infrastructure in order to attract new businesses. However, without the funding from businesses or the state, they cannot afford to make the needed upgrades without residents paying $150 - $200 per month just for their sewer bill.

“I represent a district with 26 little towns and no regional centers,” Heidgerken said. “There are many retired people on fixed incomes who sold their farms long ago to retire and now do not have as much money as they thought they would have due to inflation.”

Ideas for the future

Smisson said there are steps that can be taken to ease the burden on small communities in search of help for their wastewater systems.

Calling the current system “incredibly inefficient,” Smisson said he would like to see groups composed of four or five communities work together to share one system and have joint sewage commissions.

“We shouldn’t have to be duplicating these expensive systems for every community,” Smisson said.

Smisson said another important move by the Legislature would be to make equipment purchases for wastewater infrastructure exempt from sales taxes.

Heidgerken said that a simple change in legislative priorities could work wonders in helping small communities solve their wastewater challenges.

“It ought to be 50 percent of the bonding bill going to the seven-county metro area, 25 percent to regional centers and the rest to Greater Minnesota,” Heidgerken said. “Not $15 million out of a billion-dollar bonding bill.”

In the bonding bill passed by the House, $15.3 million was allocated for the Wastewater Infrastructure Funding Program, $5 million more than in the Senate bill. A conference committee is expected to work out differences between the bills.

“What’s more important, hockey arenas or small towns in my district pumping raw sewage into our streams?” Heidgerken said. “Where are the priorities? Wastewater should be number one.”

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