Funding & Fixing

July 7, 2017
Minnesota residents act to bring small sewer systems into compliance

About the author: Matt Summers is environmental scientist for Wenck. Wenck can be reached at [email protected] or 651.395.5206.

Across the country, many of the areas with the worst wastewater infrastructure are very small, unincorporated rural communities with no money, formal staff or experience managing large capital projects. So when a state’s pollution control agency notifies one of these communities that they need to address their wastewater issues at a potential cost of millions of dollars, what do they do? Too often, the problem simply goes unmitigated.

The size of the problem is daunting. In Minnesota alone, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA) estimates there are more than 1,000 small, unsewered communities in the state—yet fewer than 10 get addressed every year.

With noncompliant sewers, these communities cannot grow. Most counties will not allow residents to sell their property, put on an addition or pull a building permit if they do not have a compliant septic system. If an entire small town is non-compliant, it will eventually die if nothing is done.

In most unincorporated areas, it is up to the township government or the residents themselves to take action. When faced with such a challenge, where do local residents begin?

Getting Organized

The residents living around Lake Zumbro in Olmstead County, Minn., show what can be done. The small, unincorporated communities along the lake’s shores had a large percentage of properties with failing septic systems, and lot sizes often were too small to allow for individual system replacements. When state and local authorities identified these unsewered communities as sources of pollution for Lake Zumbro, the residents did not know where to begin.

The first step a community should take is to organize its residents. In Lake Zumbro, this process was simplified due to the work of a local public-private partnership called the Southeast Minnesota Wastewater Initiative (SEMWI). This group provided, at no cost, staff who organized and educated residents on the problem and potential solutions.

The assistance they provide is multifaceted: door-to-door recruitment and organizing, forming resident action committees, teaching public meeting rules and procedures, providing technical know-how, helping obtain funding and engineering services, engaging local and state authorities, advocating to political representatives, and more.

SEMWI helped several communities on Lake Zumbro address significant wastewater problems and even helped obtain funding for these costly projects. For most of them, 70% to 80% of the total project cost was covered by public grants, and the rest with low-interest loans.

Most places do not have a local nonprofit that specializes in providing wastewater facilitators. In that case, the only real option is to find a resident who is passionate about fixing the problem and has the time and ability to educate themselves and organize their neighbors. It is critical that a local, trusted person start the process and stick with it to the end. In those cases, the projects actually move forward. Wastewater projects often are contentious and expensive and can face significant community resistance. The per-property cost of a new sewer system (before public funding) might exceed the home values in some rural communities. The typical capital cost for a new public decentralized wastewater system can be around $50,000 or more per connection.

A community organizer who will profit from the project is problematic because it takes a long time for a company with a profit motive and a vested interest in a project to develop trust—especially in small towns. A resident, trusted official or nonprofit organizer who will take the time to go door to door and meet in people’s houses, have town hall meetings, have coffee and dinner with people, and grow trust is a critical factor in the ultimate success of the project.

Another benefit of recruiting a local organizer is that paying a professional engineering firm to do the organizing and initial technical work is usually prohibitively expensive. Door-to-door organizing is time-consuming, and paying an engineering firm $100 or more per hour to do it is simply not feasible. In rural communities where a local organizer can’t be recruited and no nonprofits can help, hiring a small solo practitioner engineer or operator may be a more affordable solution for the pre-work.

Regardless of who does the organizing, getting residents on the same page about fixing the problem is a critical first step because the initial phase of work, before professionals can be brought on board to take over, is too much for one person to handle without community support.

Organized residents and funding are vital components to bringing noncompliant rural sewer systems into compliance.

Scoping the Project

Once a local sewer committee is formed, it can start the process of scoping out and securing funding for the project. The good news is that many states have dedicated funds available for wastewater infrastructure projects. The bad news is that applying for and obtaining that funding requires technical expertise and an organized community. It is a catch-22—a community cannot get funding without getting organized, but cannot get organized without funding or free help. Often, these communities simply do nothing.

For example, the state of Minnesota maintains a project priority list (PPL) that assigns a priority ranking to the wastewater projects that have been submitted for funding requests. This prioritization is done based on a score determined through initial engineering assessments that must be completed along with the application. The higher a project scores, the more likely it is to receive initial funding. The Minnesota 2017 PPL list includes approximately 320 communities. Each year there might be only a few dozen shovel-ready projects on the list that receive funding.

This initial assessment is very technical and often involves a thorough review of county permit records, a drive-by of all the subject properties, mapping of site locations, and an assessment of systems that are compliant and noncompliant. Funding also is impacted by density of homes, local median income data and other factors. It is a technical process that can be burdensome for someone without the expertise to tackle it.

This is the step that causes most noncompliant wastewater systems to go unmitigated. In the case of Lake Zumbro, the SEMWI helped get the process moving. But when left to local residents, a project like this can languish for years until the threat of enforcement action from a state agency forces a community to take action.

In Minnesota, the local community can apply for a Small Communities Technical Assistance Grant for up to $60,000 to contract with an engineer for a detailed wastewater infrastructure compliance survey and feasibility and cost assessment of any potential solutions. To get this initial grant, however, a community must already be on the state’s PPL, as described above. Again, it is a takes-money-to-get-money situation, and availability of similar programs varies by state.

This study provides potential project cost estimates that are used to apply for infrastructure funding. The report is then submitted to the PCA for review and comment. Residents then must hold a community meeting to present the findings and some of the alternatives to the decision-making body—usually the township board, but sometimes a county or special district board. Hiring an engineer to conduct the community assessment and cost out potential solutions involves drafting a request for proposal, sending to known firms, and going through an interview and hiring process. This can be a big challenge for a small, unorganized community not experienced in hiring and managing consultants. This is where an organization like the SEMWI is invaluable.

There are tens of thousands of communities around the country with noncompliant or inadequate wastewater systems that are polluting the environment and keeping their communities stuck in time. The process of fixing them is crawling along at a snail’s pace. The good news is that the money to deal with problem wastewater infrastructure is out there. In fact, many states are even looking at expanding the available pool of money for shovel-ready projects.

Do not let cost be an obstacle. A good consultant partnered with a passionate grassroots organizer is the fastest way to get a project funded and completed. It worked for the residents of Lake Zumbro, and it can work for you. 

About the Author

Matt Summers

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