County seeking target approach to septic system inspections – Austin Daily Herald

District is looking for a targeted approach for inspections of sewage treatment plants

Published on Friday, February 9, 2024, 6:13 p.m

In recent years, Mower County has been looking for a way to improve the way it conducts wastewater treatment plant inspections in the county.

They are now focusing on this goal and trying to introduce a more targeted approach to the inspection process.

“We took all of our septic tank records and migrated them into a GIS,” said Val Sheedy, deputy director of public works. “Now we can look at things more specifically.”

By using a geographic information system, Sheedy can use a number of factors or a combination of these factors to determine which wastewater treatment plants should be inspected for compliance.

It's the next step in a path the county has been on since about 2018, when an independent report showed human E-Coli bacteria was detected in surface water at several locations in the county.

This prompted the county to prioritize wastewater system compliance. However, the county had to take a comprehensive approach because E-coli bacteria is not only of human origin. It can also be natural.

“We have been trying to find mechanisms to require increased compliance inspections,” Sheedy said, adding that it is up to the landowner to find the contractor. “This decision must be made by a licensed contractor. The district doesn’t do that.”

There are a number of ways in which a compliance check can be triggered, including any transfer of ownership, when a bedroom is added to a house, when planning permission is sought for a coastal area or for a non-compliant or small plot.

Shoreland is a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources designation for land 300 feet on either side of a protected waterway.

In 2021, the county added another trigger, including when a person applies for a land use permit.

However, this increased need for compliance has created some hurdles as landowners question the need for compliance controls in some situations.

“A farmer puts up a trash can, that’s a building permit,” Sheedy said. “You don’t understand the connection. It has nothing to do with my house.”

To this end, the County has made active efforts to engage landowners in the process to better explain why compliance checks are triggered and how the process works.

A meeting with communities was held in June 2023 to better address this gap in understanding.

“We talked about the permit trigger and why it’s there,” Sheedy said. “There was a lot of good feedback. There was a lot of misunderstanding about the intent and how it worked. We ended up doing a survey and asking them what mechanism they would tolerate if they didn’t have permits.”

Of the 28 responses received, 43% supported compliance checks on property transfers, while 18% supported priority based on proximity to water or sensitive features.

While the survey provided a clearer picture of what landowners want, it also suggested a need to broaden the conversation.

It's admittedly an exciting topic when you consider the prices involved. Upgrading a wastewater treatment plant can cost between $20,000 and $30,000. There can often be unexpected costs because the landowner wanted to do something that does not have a connection to a sewer system.

The county has tried to help where it could by providing vouchers to pay for the inspection itself, but that's still the system itself. It also supports replacement through a 10-year septic tank loan program at 3% Interest charges.

Sheedy said they would begin the next steps to update compliance triggers sooner rather than later, but acknowledged that whatever process is in place will be an ongoing process.

“It will be an ongoing process,” she said. “With the current contractors available, we can only install 100 to 125 systems per year. We will definitely bring in as many new ones as possible, but it will be a long process.”

Either way, the end result is cleaner waters.

“Failed sewage systems release bacteria and pathogens, so we want to do our part to ensure everyone stays safe and their children and grandchildren have access to clean water,” Sheedy said.

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