Mower County reckons with its ‘human poop in the water’ problem

Mower County is reckoning with an E. coli problem. Sure, they need to clean up their septic tanks, but who's going to pay for it?

Mower County is reckoning with an E. coli problem. Sure, they need to clean up their septic tanks, but who's going to pay for it? Mower Soil and Water Conservation District

Last year, the Izaak Walton League and 40 volunteers embarked on a summer science project. For 19 weeks, they tested the waters of the Cedar River for E. coli, a nasty, sick-making bacterium found in animal waste.

Volunteers collected just shy of 500 samples from 83 spots along the river and its tributaries. Some 70 percent contained above-standard levels of contamination.

That was enough to ruffle feathers, but more was coming. The League’s volunteer citizen scientists sent off seven samples from the river to a Florida lab for DNA testing. They expected to see a lot of cow and pig residue from the neighboring farms and feedlots, and they did. Five of the samples contained swine DNA, and six contained cattle DNA.

They didn’t expect all seven to contain human DNA. There’s human poop in the water.

The likely source is septic tanks, ranging from the iffy to the “there should be a tank here, but there isn’t.” The League brought their results to the latest Mower County Board meeting, demanding action. Volunteers have held similar meetings with leadership in Dodge County, local watershed districts, and Hormel Foods, based out of nearby Austin, Minn., asking them to change their cattle and pig farming processes. In Mower County, the meeting focused mainly on the human threat to water quality.

The League wants Mower County to require compliance inspections on old septic tanks, and says every failing tank in Dobbins Creek, a popular recreation area by the local nature center, should be fixed or replaced by year’s end. By the end of 2020, League volunteers want the same for every single tank in the county.

Gross, aging septic tanks have been a longtime public health problem in Minnesota’s rural counties. There are about 500,000 home septic systems in Minnesota, and 5 percent of them are considered human health risks by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. That’s 25,000 septic tanks.

Even that’s an improvement from a decade ago, when 11 percent (more than 50,000) posed a poop threat.

Even so, the alarming details of the results brought citizens out in droves to the meeting. At the current rate, faulty septic systems in the Mower County area wouldn’t be replaced for another 20 years, and some who live there say they’re not willing to wait. Their kids play in that water. They want the county to clean up its act now.

Mower County Commissioner Tony Bennett says he “appreciated” the League bringing its findings and recommendations, but says involving the county in septic tanks is complicated. Under current restrictions, the county only requires its residents to check and upgrade tanks when homes are sold or building permits sought.

Mower County wouldn’t have to pay very much to make the League’s plan a reality. Its homeowners, however, would have to pay through the nose. A thorough septic inspection costs the homeowner between $500 and $600. If the system is found to be too old, too leaky, or too full, replacing it can run over $20,000, depending on the kind of system one is required to get. That varies, depending how close you live to an essential water source.

It’s possible to ease the cost, though only a little. The Minnesota Legislature makes up to $14,000 in loan money available for folks with failing systems through the Clean Water Act, which residents pay off through a 10-year special assessment on your taxes. Whatever that $14,000 doesn’t cover must be paid out of pocket.

“We all want clean water, but we also want empathy for the 80-year-old woman living in a farmhouse who can’t afford to replace a septic system,” Bennett says.

They could raise taxes to offset the costs, but local soil and water conservation district manager Justin Hanson doesn’t think there’s a “strong appetite” on the board for that.

“All these things always come down to funding,” he says.

A few years ago, Mower County got its hands on some grant money through the Clean Water Fund and hired a contractor to perform visual inspections, enough to spot problem areas where human waste was bubbling to the surface. Replacing those problem spots has been an ongoing struggle to this day.

“We haven’t been doing nothing,” says Mower County Coordinator Craig Oscarson.

Don Arnosti, with the Izaak Walton League, knows they’re trying, but he wants things sped up: the county should try for another grant, or make use of the MPCA’s revolving loan fund. Bottom line, he says, people have a right to have human-poop-free rivers.

“It has been 46 years since it’s been flat out illegal to flush your toilet into the surface water,” Arnosti says. “It’s the county’s responsibility to have up-to-date waste systems.”

MPCA watershed manager Bill Thompson has kept an eye on the Mower County situation. He sees both sides of the argument: Yes, Mower County has already made a lot of progress; and yes, that progress could probably be accelerated. The thing is, this isn’t just a Mower County issue. It’s not even just a Cedar River issue. You can find the same bacterial problems across the southern Minnesota region. This is a statewide problem, and outside of those loans, there’s not a lot of money available to fix it.

“It’s never been that way,” he says.

Until that changes, it’s homeowners’ responsibility. People can ask their government to guarantee clean water, but for now, they’ll have to ask their neighbors to pay for it.