Lake County’s Crystal Bay Township has accepted a $60,000 state grant to evaluate the community’s septic systems and assess potential wastewater treatment options. The goal of the Small Community Wastewater Technical Assistance grant, funded by the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority, is to help rural communities maintain clean drinking water and a healthy environment.

Most of Crystal Bay Township’s population is concentrated in the unincorporated community of Finland, where wastewater treatment has been an increasing concern in recent years. Finland has gained attention as an “under-sewered area,” explained Lake County Environmental Services director Christine McCarthy, noting that Finland is the only community of its size in Lake County lacking large scale wastewater treatment infrastructure.

McCarthy explained that the dangers of faulty septic systems include contamination of groundwater, which impacts the safety of water drawn from nearby wells, as well as damage to aquatic ecosystems in lakes and rivers. Pollutants can include heavy metals, chemicals, harmful bacteria and excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

The community has a number of septic systems in unknown or failing condition, and the relatively dense concentration of homes along the Baptism River in Finland’s town center make these challenges especially problematic.

Its number of non-complying septic systems landed it on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s 2019 Project Priority List, which contributed to the community being awarded the grant.

The grant funds will be used to inspect septic systems in Crystal Bay Township and generate a report detailing the community’s future options.

The environmental engineering firm Wenck Associates will complete the assessment.

“If people don’t want us on-site, we won’t go on-site,” emphasized Brett Ballavance, regional director at Wenck, emphasizing that assessment on private property is a “voluntary choice by each community member.”

For homeowners not wanting on-site assessment, septic systems may be assessed from public roads and public waterways. Participating homeowners will receive a complimentary septic pump through the grant funds.

Ballavance estimated that the assessment would happen this summer with a report coming out by fall. The community can then use the information to decide what action it wants to take. Options may include fixing individual systems, developing cluster treatment systems to collect several homes’ wastewater, or installing a larger community septic or sewer system in the highest density areas.

In any case, Crystal Bay Township’s septic system challenges will need to be addressed sooner or later. Homeowners are required to have a septic compliance permit in order to sell their property or obtain building permits for additions or outbuilding construction, so noncompliant septic systems are a problem that can be postponed but not avoided.

The township sees the grant as a first step for the community to be proactive in looking for solutions and finding funding to help residents fix their septic systems. Paul Hartshorn, chair of Crystal Bay Township, explained that once the initial assessment is completed, “we’re going to push for funding from the county and state” to address the township’s wastewater infrastructure challenges.

For example, MPFA offers funding for such projects in the form of loans up to $2 million per year at 1 percent interest and grants covering up to 80 percent of cost. Instead of residents having to deal with these problems on their own, he noted that the township’s goal is to “get some money to help people fix their systems and get it cleaned up.”