-Sheila Craig, Southern Wastewater Facilitator
The Southeast Minnesota Wastewater Initiative (SMWI), a program of the Cannon River Watershed Partnership, works with small communities that have failing septic systems or even those that are letting sewage onto the surface of the ground or into nearby streams.
When septic systems need to be up-graded and the parcel owned by the homeowner is very small and close to other small parcels, it becomes quite difficult for these homeowners to install new and compliant systems. Sometimes a community approach is the best solution and to get there is a complex process. The way to solve these community issues often costs quite a lot to construct which is especially difficult when the project area has low-income residents. Because of a combination of these factors, SMWI seeks to help find state grant and loan funding to make the project affordable.
The Minnesota Legislature appropriates funds to the MN Public Facilities Authority (PFA), the State Agency responsible for funding wastewater programs. Currently most of the funding is coming from the Clean Water Legacy Program (the 3/8 of 1% tax that you pay when making a purchase). In 2016, the State Legislature failed to pass a bonding bill and so no new funds were available for wastewater projects. This was a concern for SMWI projects as they needed to wait for grant funds to make them affordable for the property owners. In particular, this affected the Turtle Creek 2 project in Mower County. Wastewater projects are scored through an application process and the Turtle Creek 2 project fell just below the cut-off line of available carryover funding. This caused a backlog in getting projects funded all across the state.
Also in the 2016 bonding bill was a provision to increase the Point Source Implementation Grant (PSIG) funding from 50% to an 80% grant. Since no bonding bill was passed, no larger percentage grant was available. This affected the Cedar Beach project on Lake Zumbro in Olmsted County. They did go ahead and construct their new sewage treatment system as they had received a favorable construction bid and didn’t want to wait for more grant money while possibly having a more costly construction project. But had the bonding bill passed their project would certainly have been more affordable for those residents.
Yes, the MN Legislature did pass a 2017 bonding bill and the provision of an 80% grant for the PSIG program. This is great! Projects will get more money, but it will also take more money to fund the overall program which was not allocated. So more expensive projects with higher scores will use up more of the money before it can get to lower scoring, smaller projects. Bigger city projects, more highly ranked on the Priority List, will essentially use up the allocated dollars before all projects are funded.
How does this affect projects we are working on with SMWI? Dresbach, in Winona County is a good example: the ranking on the Priority List is based on many factors, with one main one being density (simplified as how many septic systems are there in the project area). Dresbach is a long community located between the Mississippi River and the SE bluffs with Interstate 90 going through the middle.
Much of the acreage in the project area is not usable for new systems as it is water, bluff, and roads. But because of the scoring formula they do not receive any ‘density’ points and thus are low on the priority list. They are going to fall below the funding level for the amount of money that has been appropriated in this Bonding Bill. Hopefully a bonding bill in 2018 will appropriate additional dollars so more projects can be funded, correcting the wastewater treatment and preventing contamination to the environment.
Upgrading community sewage systems is complex and one of the major complexities is funding.
Tackling wastewater issues is a challenging and important job for SMWI and CRWP to improve the water quality in Southeastern Minnesota.
Sheila Craig is CRWP’s Southern Community Wastewater Facilitator and has been doing this work for 13 years!