Leaders weigh value of a clean lake

The News Guard

Options for tackling pollution in Devils Lake include a City fee on nearby septic tank owners, with the proceeds going toward installation of sewers around the lake, local officials say.

Meeting on Nov. 7, members of Lincoln City Council and the Devils Lake Water Improvement District (DLWID) heard such a fee could help the City afford the ambitious project, which has an estimated cost of $30 million.

The group also discussed the prospect of DLWID asking voters to approve a property tax increase to fund the work.

City Manager David Hawker said previous efforts to install sewer in areas including Neotsu and East Devils Lake Road have stalled due to the high cost estimates.

But Mayor Dick Anderson said a high price tag does not necessarily rule out a project, drawing attention to Lincoln County voters’ recent approval of a bond measure that raised $63 million for school improvements.

“The value of a healthy lake, to me, is more than $30 million,” he said.

Anderson, who has previously opposed plans for a mandatory septic tank inspection program, also said he now favors a more targeted inspection approach that would focus first on the systems deemed most likely to be contributing toward lake pollution.

One of the workshop’s central questions was whether the City and DLWID should focus on setting up such a program or move straight to the larger challenge of sewering the lake.

Although no decisions were made, the group seemed to unite behind a suggestion from DLWID board member Kip Ward, who proposed pursuing a property tax for sewer installation first and, if voters reject the idea, using septic inspections as a fallback option.

“It seems to me that if the thing that works best is sewering the lake, we should go for the thing that works the best,” he said.

Hawker said charging City water customers who have septic tanks $40 a month would raise $250,000 per year, which the City could put toward sewer installation.

Meanwhile, he said, a lower fee of $20 per month, combined with an additional charge based on water usage would be fairer and still raise $234,000 per year.

Hawker said the City could stockpile the revenue for use on individual sewer installation projects as and when funding is available or use it to pay off a bond that would fund a comprehensive sewering project.

Councilor Alex Ward said that, even if funding becomes available through a DLWID tax or a City fee, installing sewers around the lake is likely to take more than a decade.

“For that time we are sitting here with failing [septic] tanks?” he said, adding: “It seems like we have an initial problem that we have to address.”

Hawker said the City could rank the roughly 700 septic systems within the watershed based on their age, tank material, amount of water use and proximity to the lake in order to identify the systems most likely to be contributing pollution.

Workshop attendees heard that roughly a third of those septic systems have no records associated with them, indicating they are at least 37 years old.

Hawker said the City could carry out a first year of inspections, tackling maybe 150 systems and review the effectiveness of the program before deciding whether to continue.

In the meantime, he said, the City could contract for an engineering study to get a firm estimate of the amount needed to sewer the lake.

After that, he said, the City could abandon the inspection program and pursue sewering, secure in the knowledge that it had addressed the systems most likely to be failing.

Anderson said he supports the idea of requiring inspections of undocumented septic systems, saying their owners had failed to fulfill their obligation to ensure the systems are functioning properly.

DLWID board member Randy Weldon said a neighbor’s septic tank proved to be “like Swiss cheese” when dug up for relocation recently.

He said most property owners “don’t have a clue” as to whether their septic systems are functioning as long as their toilet flushes and their sink drains.

Councilor Chester Noreikis asked whether the City could use money from a new tax to pay for the septic system inspections, removing the burden from property owners and spreading it across the community.

Hawker said any funding source would only go so far.

“Do we start putting a lot of money into septic or put a lot of money into sewer?” he said. “And if you dilute that, if you try to do both, we are going to get there slower.”

Council is set to discuss the options at its Nov. 14 meeting, which is 6 p.m. at City Hal

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Filed under City Actions, Lakeside

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