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Septic system ordinances could change

WORTHINGTON - The Nobles County Planning Commission Wednesday night approved an updated subsurface sewage treatment ordinance that will, if approved by county commissioners, require all property owners to have a compliant septic system in operation at the point of sale or transfer to a new owner.

The requirement is among several rule changes that will be recommended to the county board for approval at its Jan. 19 meeting. Once approved, the changes will take effect prior to the state-imposed deadline of Feb. 4.

In a presentation to planning commission members Wednesday night, Nobles County Environmental Officer Mark Koster said the county's ordinance is no more restrictive than the state guidelines, which were set by the legislature.

The language is similar to ordinances in place in neighboring counties, said Koster, adding that septic system ordinances in Lincoln, Murray and Redwood counties were used as a guideline for the local environmental services office.

"We took their ordinances and picked pieces out that we thought would work well in our county," Koster said. The ordinance covers every township and every city in Nobles County, with the exception of Worthington, Adrian, Ellsworth, Leota and Wilmont.

While management plans and operating permits will be required for septic systems, the updated ordinance clearly puts the responsibility on property owners to keep their system in compliance.

At this point, there is no movement in the county to go around and inspect all septic systems. However, environmental services director Wayne Smith said that could happen in the future.

"At least 30 to 40 counties have an inventory and are going out from lake to lake, township to township and doing an inventory and taking steps to make people comply," Smith said.

In Nobles County, Smith said he gets calls on a regular basis from groups like the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Board of Water and Soil Resources, the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture inquiring about the number of non-compliant septic systems. At this point, the numbers he provides are simply a best guess.

Smith said the plan is to have a summer intern work on an inventory of septic systems within the county and determine, based on the age of the system, if a property owner could have a non-compliant septic.

He told the planning commission that while the county doesn't plan to inspect every septic system for compliance, other agencies, such as lake associations and watershed districts, could initiate a systematic inspection and require all systems be brought into compliance.

The primary reason for the rule changes to septic systems is, after all, to protect groundwater.

"In the past, the only time people had to upgrade their system was when the system failed ... or they added a bedroom," said Smith. Now, he said the first place to start with forcing compliance is to ensure that septic systems are in proper working order at the point of sale or transfer.

Smith said the county will continue to investigate any reports of non-compliant septic systems, and require those that are failing to be upgraded, replaced or abandoned. The average cost for a new septic system is approximately $10,000, he said.

A new requirement in the ordinance states that all systems must now be inspected by a licensed inspection business. The inspector will evaluate all new and replacement septics to make sure the system is water tight, and that the drain field is installed at no less than three feet above the water table.

Other changes in the ordinance include an increase in tank sizing for septic systems, required remote water meters for holding tanks and required management plans for all new and replacement systems.

Smith said the public will need to be educated about maintenance of their septic system. He said septics should be pumped every three years, but many fail to follow those guidelines.

"These septic systems are designed to last for 30 years, but only 30 years," Smith said. "If you don't take care of it, it's not going to last 30 years."

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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