ATWATER -- The non-compliance of 70 percent of the individual septic systems on Diamond Lake has residents searching for long-term solutions.
With the help of grants, consultants and thousands of hours of volunteer time, the results of a year-long study have identified three viable options: managed individual sewage treatment systems, multiple cluster systems or connecting to the Green Lake Sanitary Sewer and Water District. A combination of the options could also be implemented.
A summary of the 60-page study was presented to residents during a meeting in August.
Within the next two weeks, letters will be sent to 371 Diamond Lake homes with a report of compliance or non-compliance of the individual sewage systems and details for alternative solutions.
Later this fall, residents will receive a non-binding "ballot" to select which option they'd prefer.
"Doing nothing is not an option," said Kandiyohi County Commissioner Harlan Madsen. "Something needs to be done to address the situation to properly dispose and treat the sewage."
Under the county's ordinance, once a septic system is documented to be out of compliance, a 24-month clock begins ticking to correct the problem.
Because Diamond Lake residents are making progress to reach a solution, there could be flexibility in meeting the timeline, said Madsen.
Regardless of which system is selected, everyone around Diamond Lake will eventually have a system that's running correctly, said Joyce Wittman, a member of the Diamond Lake Wastewater Committee.
They will also have a system that was researched by the people using it, which will allow the community to have "ownership" of the system, said Valerie Prax, a University of Minnesota Extension Educator who worked with the Diamond Lake Wastewater Committee.
It's a model that's growing in rural Minnesota, said Prax, who is helping lead other communities through a similar process in the state.
In 2006, Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners hired Bolton & Menk Inc. to do a feasibility study for installing a sanitary sewer collection system around Diamond Lake that would connect to the Green Lake Sanitary Sewer and Water District.
Diamond Lake residents objected to the one-option plan offered by the county and wanted to do their own research to weigh the pros and cons of alternatives, including the capital cost estimates and annual operation and maintenance costs.
With the help of a state grant, residents began a grassroots exploration, research and decision-making process that "puts the community in the driver's seat," said Prax.
Diamond Lake residents are learning how to solve their own problems rather than have a solution handed to them, said Prax, who is quick to praise the county's desire to get a good wastewater treatment system around the lake and their cooperation with the "bottom up" decision-making process.
In the end, residents may choose the Green Lake Sanitary Sewer and Water District system the county had initially recommended, once they'd had time to digest the information in the report, said Prax.
"It's a very, very thorough study," said Wittman, a member of the Diamond Lake Wastewater Committee that's invested well over 10,000 of in-kind hours into the project. "We just wanted to know what our options are."
Among the many details in the report, a capital cost comparison of the options lists the average cost per homeowner at $10,000 for new septic systems and $16,000 for cluster systems. The specific prices would vary for each lot.
The cost to connect to the Green Lake Sanitary Sewer and Water District is a uniform $18,700 per lot.
The residents also wanted to know exactly how many septic systems were indeed failing.
The county's zoning and public works departments had estimated 70 percent were out of compliance, said Madsen.
A Clean Water Legacy grant that was received and administered by the Kandiyohi County Environmental Services Department funded inspections of 292 individual septic systems. Another 79 were exempt because of recent compliance checks.
According to the study, 69 percent of those tested were non-compliant, with 4 percent flagged as an "imminent threat to public health and safety" because the system was either surfacing sewage on or near the ground surface or was causing periodic back-ups into the residence.
According to the report, a majority of the septic systems were installed prior to 1990 and about one-third of those were installed before 1970 and have never been upgraded.
Peter Miller, a consultant from Wenck Associates who was hired by the county to conduct on-site inspections of the septic systems, was later hired by the Diamond Lake Wastewater Committee to study the alternatives.
Given the age of the septic systems, he said he wasn't surprised by the number of non-compliant systems.
"We have a lot of lakes in this state and a lot of them are dealing with the same issues Diamond Lake is dealing with," said Miller.
He was not asked to study if the failing septic systems are directly polluting the lake.