Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Corps of Engineers commits $4.5 million to sewer project

Tom Klein
Posted 2/19/16

INTERNATIONAL FALLS - The final piece of funding for the Island View Sanitary Sewer Extension Project fell into place last week when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers committed $4.5 million to …

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Corps of Engineers commits $4.5 million to sewer project

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INTERNATIONAL FALLS - The final piece of funding for the Island View Sanitary Sewer Extension Project fell into place last week when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers committed $4.5 million to complete a project designed to prevent untreated wastewater from leaching into Rainy Lake.

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan hailed the news as “good for the lake, good the environment, and good for local resorts, small businesses, tourists and residents.”

Acting Superintendent Bill Carlson credited the efforts of the Voyageurs National Park Clean Waters Joint Powers Board.

“It will not only be a benefit to the gateway communities from an economic standpoint,” said Carlson, “the project will also enhance visitor enjoyment through improved water quality within the park.” 

“This has been a rather unique collaboration involving several public and private entities to bring this important project to fruition.”

Construction on the Rainy Lake portion of the Voyageurs National Park Clean Water Project could begin as early as this summer.

Water threat

As development has increased around Voyageurs National Park, its 84,000 acres of mostly clean, clear water have increasingly come under threat from outside contamination, Nolan noted.

Chris Holdbeck, a scientist from Voyageurs National Park, testified several years ago to the Kabetogama Town Board and then-St. Louis County Commissioner Mike Forsman that E coli bacteria from failing septic systems were threatening the water quality of the park.

His assessment was based on a study, which monitored the water quality of the four major lakes in the park for fecal coliform from 1980 to 1999. Although the levels never exceeded environmental standards, park officials speculated that samples indicating the presence of fecal coliform which were drawn from the deeper waters in lakes, likely would be higher near the shoreline.

Fecal coliform tests are used to determine whether water has been contaminated with fecal matter. The Environmental Protection Agency has set acceptable limits for fecal coliform in water based on its usage. For example, drinking water cannot contain any fecal coliform, but water for swimming may contain up to 400 fecal coliform colonies per 100 milliliters.

It’s been estimated that somewhere between 41 percent and 84 percent of existing septic systems neighboring Voyageurs are unreliable due in large part to the region’s rocky shorelines that prohibit traditional systems from properly filtering wastewater.

The joint powers board was established in 2009 to oversee projects aimed at addressing the problem of poorly treated or untreated wastewater from failing septic systems seeping into the lakes.

The new $17 million system will pipe wastewater directly from homes, cabins and resorts into a central treatment plant.

The project is part of the larger Voyageurs National Park Clean Water Project that additionally includes separate sewage systems on Lake Kabetogama, Ash River and Crane Lake.

The Kabetogama and Crane Lake projects are estimated at more than $3.6 million each. The Crane Lake project is already under way while the Kabetogama project is slated to begin soon.

Meanwhile, the Ash River project is still seeking a suitable site on which to build a central system, according to local officials.

Funding the project

U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, Al Franken and U.S. Reps. Rick Nolan, Betty McCollum, Keith Ellison, Collin Peterson and Tim Walz sent a letter to the Corps urging support of the effort, which also is being funded with state and local dollars.

The project received $7.8 million in state bonding and $1 million in legacy funding. In addition, Koochiching County has committed $430,000 to the effort, and local residents will shell out $3.5 million, largely through assessments.

Koochiching County Commissioner Wade Pavleck, who serves on the VNP Clean Water Project Joint Powers Board, acknowledged that not all residents were in favor of the project.

“Some may be opposed to it, but by and large there is pretty strong support,” he told The Journal, a bi-weekly newspaper in International Falls. “It all comes down to money.”

Pavleck said without federal support, the project likely would have been shelved.

“We needed this (money) to keep costs affordable,” he said in an interview with The Journal. “Once we go over a certain point, we lose support.”

Pavleck noted that while obtaining funding to proceed with the Island View Sanitary Sewer Extension marks a milestone, there is still more work ahead. The International Falls area and Rainy Lake lie at the bottom of the system, he added, and unless the entire basin is cleaned up, the board will fall short of its objectives.

“We hope to get the entire basin under managed systems,” he said. “Clean water is one of our most precious resources.”

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