For most people it's flush and forget about it.
But treatment of waste in a water-rich environment poses environmental and health concerns for failing treatment systems. And Tuesday Crow Wing County commissioners expressed concern about the lack of information they have on how well on-site systems are maintained.
For years there have been numerous examples of homeowners, often Twin Cities transplants, who are not aware they even have a septic system let alone how to maintain one with regular pumping. More recent, arguments have been made that on-site septic systems may be better and cheaper for service in rural areas as long as systems are properly maintained.
Tuesday commissioners heard that argument as Commissioner Gary Walters spoke in favor of a countywide sanitary sewer district. Commissioners took no action.
The earliest a decision is expected is late September. A primary focus of a sanitary sewer district would be to maintain on-site septic systems properly.
The alternative is considered a "big pipe" or municipal sewer system that is typically more expensive, especially in areas where homes are spread out and fewer property owners are there to bear the cost.
It was Walters' second presentation to the board as chairman of the joint commission of the county board and the Thirty Lakes Watershed District.
After working on the issue for more than a year, Walters said he expected several information sessions would be needed before commissioners would be asked to vote on the subject.
A countywide sewer district would operate much like a public utilities commission.
"The reason for the district is to help find the solution," Walters said. "If our county is going to grow the way they say it's going to grow, we need a coordinated plan. ... If we don't plan we are going to be stuck with the big pipe everywhere."
Walters said growth is driving the issue especially in the lakes region north of Brainerd and Baxter. The county population expected to nearly double to 100,000 residents in the foreseeable future.
The joint commission is recommending the lakes region of Pelican, Mission, Lake Edward and Center townships and Unorganized Territory could be used as a pilot area within the sewer district.
For residents in the pilot area, a district likely is to mean a $25 fee for data maintenance administration and a need to have their septic system inspected every three years at an additional cost of roughly $100-$200.
Residents already served by a municipal sewer system are not included. Residents in other parts of the county outside a pilot area would not pay any fees.
Commissioner Dewey Tautges said he did not think his area near Fort Ripley needed it.
"I really believe our only hope to hold down cost and to protect the environment is to have well-managed and well-maintained systems," said Commissioner Ed Larsen.
Without a countywide sanitary sewer district, the county has no regulation on where sewage is dumped after systems are pumped and little regulation on the septic systems maintenance, Walters said. Currently construction permits can trigger septic system inspections.
Walters said a large purpose of the district is education. He said most people want to maintain systems properly. The county's plan is modeled after one in Ottertail County, which included a contract with septic system pumpers that reduced costs.
Larsen said he recently had a caller say he didn't need the sanitary district. When asked how recently the caller had system maintenance done, the caller admitted to being unsure where the system was located.
Larsen said if a neighbor does not take care of his system, it becomes a problem for others. Walters said people on 80 acres say if the system fails it will still only affect them. But, he said, when the thousands of people start to move into the area as anticipated by state demographers, they are going to build somewhere.
Walters admitted he lived in Baxter seven years before he had his own septic system pumped because he didn't know any better. Now his home will be served by the big pipe. Walters said pumpers admit they are not serving all systems and they may stop serving a failing one, but they are not likely to report it to government officials.
RENEE RICHARDSON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.
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