Cedar River Volunteers Are Friends of the Onsite Industry

Citizen water-quality testing identifies E. coli from human sources, which may point to failing septic systems and a river system cleanup

Through regulation, your state or provincial governments hasten modernization of decentralized wastewater treatment and have a positive impact on water quality. In other cases, local governments and their environmental health departments can enact or enforce rules to bring about necessary change.

And sometimes concerned citizens, banding together as volunteers, bring awareness to wastewater issues and point the way to a cleaner environment. That seems to be the case in Mower County in Minnesota, where about 200 people organized for a long-term water-quality monitoring program on the Cedar River (near Austin in southeast Minnesota) … and found evidence that failing septic systems are contributing to high levels of E. coli bacteria in the watershed.

While it appears the programs to clean up the waterways in agriculture-heavy southern Minnesota have been improving the situation, volunteers of the Cedar River Watershed Project are keeping a focus on the issue. Five teams of about 40 volunteers were trained to take water samples for bacteria, and a group of those samples has indicated high levels of E. coli from human waste, as well as swine and cattle. These bacteria make the river unsafe for recreational use.


Over the years, local county governments have eliminated many of the household wastewater straight pipes that emptied directly into Cedar River tributaries, a practice that goes back 50 years or more, according to Bill Buckley, a river resident and retired environmental health director for Mower County. One of the water-sampling project volunteers, Buckley ran the county onsite program for many years as polluting systems were identified and replaced.

“We’ve removed sewage from a lot of small communities and subdivisions. You used to go along the river and smell sewage, and you don’t anymore,” he says. “I look at this as maybe the final step we need to take to eliminate these hidden sources (of bacteria), at least as far as septics are concerned.”

The water-quality monitoring first conducted in summer 2017 and continuing today was highlighted in a recent story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The story outlined how a $100,000 grant from the McKnight Foundation was utilized to train for and conduct the water sampling and subsequent testing. Volunteers include members of local groups like the Izaak Walton League and 4-H, as well as concerned individuals living along the river and in many rural communities.

The volunteer teams took weekly samples throughout last summer in several locations along the Cedar River in addition to sampling following significant rain events. Buckley says about 75 percent of the samples contained E. coli levels above the acceptable standard. The group had seven samples sent for DNA analysis, testing for the origin of the bacteria from human, cattle, or swine sources. Human DNA was found in all samples.


Attention will be turned to identifying sources of bacteria, both human and agriculture-related. “Finding the sources and correcting existing problems to begin with,” Buckley says. Ultimately the goal would be to seek stronger maintenance and inspection of septic systems through local enforcement of state guidelines.

“The state has established a three-year pumping standard and they have guidelines for compliance inspections, but the counties are not required to enforce any of that. That’s where the problem comes in,” he says.

A wide range of enforcement of onsite rules does exist, says Bill Thompson, the regional water quality project manager for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. For example, Mower County inspects septic systems at the time of property transfer or sale rather than using the three-year standard. Counties in more urban areas, by contrast, may more closely follow the state’s guidelines.

But Thompson points out the state has made great strides at overall improvement of decentralized wastewater treatment. Going back about 15 years, the state conducted a regional study of bacteria in waterways and many of the straight pipes were eliminated. He says an effort several years ago identified many polluting septic systems along Dobbins Creek leading into the Cedar River.

Thompson also points out that state and local programs to fund septic system updates are making a difference. Subsurface Sewage Treatment System grants offer mostly low-interest loans for system repairs and replacements that can be paid back over 10 years on homeowners’ property tax bills. Additionally, in 2007 state voters authorized 3/8 of a percent sales tax going toward the Legacy Fund, part of which supports a clean water fund, and ultimately to local jurisdictions that give grants for onsite work.


On a personal level, Buckley says he has his septic system pumped every three years following the state guidelines and has had two required compliance inspections, once when he bought the house and once when he put on an addition. He also added a riser to his tank to make pumping more convenient.

With the popularity of more costly mound systems and the emergence of more advanced treatment units in some cases, he sees routine maintenance on the rise. “With the investment in those systems, people are pumping them more frequently,” he says. “I also conducted education classes for new systems and anyone else who wanted to attend, and stressed the importance of regular pumping.”

The onsite industry should be supportive of volunteer-driven programs that search out antiquated wastewater treatment systems and potentially motivate government officials to increase enforcement of clean water rules. And where waterways are impaired, the industry needs to promote the use of available advanced technologies to improve water quality and quality of life for folks who use septic systems. We’ve got a great environmental story to share and efforts like this one provide a platform to start those discussions.


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