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Reading to pursue centralized sewer

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READING -- With its partially-treated sewage flowing into a judicial ditch for decades, the unincorporated hamlet of Reading has become the third community in as many years in Nobles County to now face the requirement of constructing a centralized sewer system.

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In early July, Jeff Goldy, with the nonprofit Midwest Assistance Program, met with nearly 25 property owners in Reading to explain why the project was needed, the costs and the potential to access grants and low-interest loans. Goldy estimates the process could take up to three years as studies are done to determine the type of system needed, rights-of-way are acquired and construction completed. Meanwhile, the sewage continues to flow into the judicial ditch.

"This has been going on ever since the town was built," said Goldy. "As long as the community has identified the problem and the need to solve it, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) will give them time to solve it."

Reading, because of its size and location (it isn't in close proximity to lakes or streams), was considered a lower priority in Nobles County, which is why it is the last to begin working on a centralized sewer.

The city of Bigelow completed its new lagoon system two years ago, and Dundee is now going through the process.

At this time, homes in Reading have their own septic tanks, however the sewage gets pumped into a straight pipe and empties into the county ditch system.

The straight pipe must be removed and the sewage pumped elsewhere -- likely into a subsurface treatment system, according to Nobles County Environmental Services Director Wayne Smith.

"We have to treat the effluent -- we can't just dilute the water," Smith said. "That's what these subsurface systems do."

Because Reading has opted to use a soil-based treatment method for its sewage, Nobles County will be responsible for regulating the system that's installed and making sure it remains in compliance.

"In all of the (communities requiring new systems), the county stands ready to help in any way we can," Smith said.

Cost is concern

While Goldy said he has no idea at this point how much a centralized sewer system will cost for the residents of Reading, an estimated monthly cost per homeowner of $50 was mentioned at the early July meeting.

Summit Lake Township board chairman Paul Rogers said some residents were concerned about the fee.

"It doesn't cost them anything now, and we don't know for sure how much it's going to be," said Rogers. Some had also commented that their system was working now, and they didn't understand why it needed to change.

Goldy said there will need to be approximately 39 connections in the community, of which 34 are residential properties.

The next step, said Rogers, is to get people to sign up to be included in the centralized system. While the township board meets again on Tuesday, he said they are still waiting for more information before they can proceed.

Goldy said the community will need to form a sewer district to manage the project, and once that is completed, the project will be placed on the MPCA's priority assessment list.

Environment, public health key to change

Gene Soderbeck, MPCA supervisor of the southwest region's municipal division, said his agency has been working for the past 15 years to fix the communities that are discharging sewage through straight pipes. He believes all such communities in southwest Minnesota have been contacted and are going through the process to correct their systems.

"The agency has been making a concerted effort to eliminate straight pipe discharges into water in the state and eliminate these imminent threats to public health," Soderbeck said, adding that there is a state law prohibiting straight pipe systems.

With several lakes, rivers and streams in southwest Minnesota on the MPCA's list of impaired waters -- many because of high levels of fecal coliform bacteria -- Soderbeck said solving community sewage issues is key to reducing bacteria levels.

The presence of fecal coliform is indicative of the warm-blooded animals, including humans, he said. The MPCA is working to identify where the fecal coliform is coming from.

State standards for fecal coliform bacteria are less than 200 fecal organisms per 100 milliliters. The sewage coming out of a septic tank, on the other hand, has millions of fecal organisms.

While the motto of reducing pollution has always been "dilution is the solution," no amount of dilution will reduce the levels of fecal coliform bacteria present in untreated sewage discharged into a ditch system.

"In order to get 2 million down to our standards, you need 99.9999 percent dilution, which basically means you need to prevent it -- there is no dilution that's going to be able to achieve that," Soderbeck said.

There have not been any complaints filed, nor health ailments attributed to sewage being discharged into a ditch system in Nobles County, but Soderbeck said they don't need to find people who are sick in order to force septic system compliance.

"What was once acceptable is no longer acceptable," added Smith. "That's the way it is -- the way health education has gone."

Funding sought

In the last several years, legislation has offered additional assistance to counties to validate perceived straight pipe communities and, at the same time, provide some funds to help them fix their systems.

Soderbeck said both the Public Financing Authority and USDA Rural Development have stepped up to help communities fund centralized sewer projects, and other sources of revenue are available as well.

Smith is hoping to access both state and federal funds to help pay for the project in Reading, and said they are at an advantage because they are looking at a cluster system. People who reside on farms or acreages often don't have the same access to financial assistance.

"We have a low-interest loan program for anyone interested in putting in a new septic system," he said. "The watershed districts also reward people for replacing non-compliant septic systems."

Nobles County has an ordinance requiring all septic systems be brought up to code at the point of sale. That's the biggest driver of getting properties to be in compliance, Smith said.

As for the residents of Reading, Rogers hopes completion of a centralized sewer in the community will not only bring property owners into compliance, it may just help boost their property values.

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Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at www.farmbleat.areavoices.com.
(507) 376-7330
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