Water Environment Federation (WEF)

Integrating Rural Wastewater Management: Crow Wing County Sanitary Management District

Double-digit population growths and skyrocketing development has resulted in a dramatic increase in unsewered development in Minnesota’s popular lakes county. To help assure protection of human health and the quality of the waters, a county wide decentralized sanitary district with pilot subordinate districts is being established in Crow Wing County. The objective of the district is to develop an effective strategy for implementation of a decentralized wastewater management district on a local level to ensure that onsite/cluster wastewater systems within the district are properly operated, maintained, and that there is future planning for replacement needs.

It’s September 2000, and another meeting. The Crow Wing County Commissioner’s job called for attending local meetings on what seemed like a daily basis. Tonight he was to join the county’s Director of Planning and Zoning for a meeting at a rural lake neighborhood to discuss with the residents a growing concern – sewage. This neighborhood is typical of the many other rural lake neighborhoods of northern Minnesota’s lake country. It had been developed prior to any zoning requirements. The lots are small with individual “septic systems” and individual wells. He knew that these septic systems were not reliable and because of the many failures, they were being blamed for pollution problems in the lake. He had heard these same concerns and complaints from many of the other active lake associations in the county including the Thirty Lakes Watershed District managers. He felt that this was an emerging issue in the county and that he should be on top of it.

Exploding growth and development in the county has increased lakeshore values to unheard of prices. What were once undesirable lakeshore properties are being built upon as fast as developers create the lots. The latest type of lakeshore development, which allow increased housing densities of second tiers lots with common lake access, are popping up throughout the county. Also, more and more of what people are calling “starter castles” are being built out of the conversion of seasonal residences existing small lakeshore cabins. All of this has to impact the lakes.

The Commissioner knew that the spectacular lakes that make up his county are the reason for the escalating growth and development. Protection of the lakes is a widespread concern issue. This would be a good meeting. The commissioner enjoyed these types of meetings, at a resident’s home, before his district constituents, discussing an issue that related to natural resource and public health protection. He had a good reputation and a history of being involved in public health issues on both a local and a state level. He felt the meeting probably wouldn’t last too long. The Director of Planning and Zoning had told the Commissioner that he had experience in this issue when he had been previously employed in another part of the state. The Commissioner also had a good sense of what needed to be done. The immediate task wouldn’t take that long to accomplish – meet with the people tonight, listen to their concerns, share some ideas, and provide leadership. Based on the Director’s experience with a solution that was implemented on another lake in west central Minnesota in the early 1970’s the answer was obvious. Just get rid of those septic systems! Brainerd was only eight miles away, Nisswa was even closer, and with the many lakes in the area and the busy state highway 371 corridor, all it would take was to partner with one of those cities, bring a sewer main out along the highway corridor, wrap it around the lakes, and bring the sewage back to the municipal treatment plant. The Commissioner knew it may take a few years to accomplish but he had good sense of what needed to be done and the path that needed to be taken. “The big pipe will solve all our sewage problems.”

Years later at a Crow Wing County Board of Commissioners meeting the vote was unanimous. The Commissioner felt good about the vote. Even the conservative commissioner that has always believed that most any county program is a burden on the taxpayers voted to proceed together with the commissioner from the agricultural district of the county. Seven months later, February on 14, 2006 the Sanitary Subordinate District is established by the Crow Wing County Board of Commissioners. In addition to the original five townships, another township and a municipally have seen the potential of the District and have requested to join in the pilot district.

All those meetings over the last five years had paid off! The Commissioner and Chairman of the Board had put a lot of effort into this solution. His fellow commissioner, the Chairman, had taken over the Joint Powers Board (JPB), given it new energy, and provided the catalyst to get the job done. He knew there wasn’t much precedence to provide direction for all the work left to be done. The JPB was plowing new ground for the county. Bumps were expected along the way but the organization and a plan were finally set in place. The plan made sense, it was practical, and it promised to be a cost effective solution.

The county’s government and leadership had provided the citizens help needed to accomplish critical and vital goals of resource and public health protection in Crow Wing County. The issue of sewage treatment now had a solution for well into the future. The county would now know what wastewater needs exist and how to prioritize the needs against the available resources today and in the future. All the work of the I-Team over the last five years had paid off. All the representatives of the lake associations, the Thirty Lakes Watershed, the concerned citizens, practitioners in the septic system industry, and the Consultant provided useful input, discussion, debate, information, and support, which was critical in preparing the County Board for that day’s vote. All the cooperative efforts had gained enough support in the State Legislature to promulgate new state law just for the county. The vote at the board meeting confirmed that the county would take the lead role. Everything necessary for the county to establish the framework and guide the work was now in place!

What is the solution? It was not what the commissioner had first assumed when planning was initiated at that first lakeshore neighborhood meeting in 2002. Numerous neighborhood and township meetings had been held that provided a lot of public education that led to conceptual changes. The big pipe no longer was thought to be the solution. Local politics and excessive costs eliminated this solution. The community leaders and residents came to realize that the needed infrastructure was already in place and it is paid for! All it needed was better planning and management. It is their own existing septic systems! When properly managed, they do a very good job of treatment and are cost effective. Why not organize them, manage them, and operate them as an integrated whole to provide a long-term  solution for wastewater treatment in the county? It just made sense!

That vote by the County Board had provided the tool, the Crow Wing County Sanitary Management District, a countywide management district where managed onsite wastewater treatment systems would be the wastewater infrastructure of the district. This was quite a turn around from the initial perception that a big pipe and regional treatment was the only option to acceptance of onsite septic systems to be the principal solution! How had this turn around come about?

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