It’s tough to argue with clean water, particularly in the only water-based national park in the country. That’s likely one reason that the Voyageurs National Park Clean Water Joint Powers Board has been successful in obtaining millions of public dollars ostensibly to clean up lakes within Voyageurs. It’s been doing so mostly by installing highly expensive wastewater treatment systems within the clusters of commercial and residential development located just outside the boundaries of the park.
The story line the board and its lobbyists from the engineering firm SEH tell is compelling—there’s just little reason to believe it’s true. Despite spending millions of dollars, there is no evidence that the board’s actions are actually improving water quality in the park. Water quality within the park’s major lakes was steadily improving well before the board began its work. Helped by better methods and enforcement for individual septic systems as well as the phaseout of phosphorus in products like detergents, phosphorus levels in the park’s lakes have dropped by as much as two-thirds since the mid-1970s according to readily available data on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s website.
What’s more, despite seeking tens of millions in public dollars for each new system they build, the joint powers board has yet to provide evidence that any of the septic systems they seek to replace are actually failing. Instead, they use criteria such as age and the size of cabin lots to classify them as “non-compliant.” They acknowledge they’ve yet to undertake actual inspections, which is the best way to determine if a system is actually discharging inadequately treated wastewater. We know that a properly functioning septic system discharges no pollution to surface water, which can’t be said of many centralized systems. Such systems discharge treated wastewater that still contains some phosphorus, which is the nutrient most likely to fuel algae blooms in Minnesota lakes.
When an entity like a joint powers board is seeking tens of millions of dollars to solve a problem, they sure as heck should be expected to have done the hard work of documenting an actual problem. That due diligence is sorely lacking here.
And even if the joint powers board had evidence that septic systems were creating a pollution threat that was impacting the park’s lakes, there are far less costly solutions— solutions that were dismissed in favor of alternatives that would generate far more fees for SEH, the engineering firm that has been a primary driver of this entire effort. The Ash River project, a story about which appears on the front page of this week’s paper, would entail spending $24 million in public funds to connect 81 sites with buildings to a centralized system. That’s $296,000 per site, and it’s not clear that all of these sites even generate wastewater. In addition, a number of these cabins have holding tanks or outhouses, which typically generate no polluted discharge. Account for those sites and the cost per actual cabin is much closer to $400,000, or far more than most of the cabins served are even worth.
What’s worse, the master plan for the Ash River proposal projects an annual operating and maintenance cost of $460,000. Where will that money come from? If it comes from Ash River cabin owners, as one might expect, the monthly cost would exceed $450 a month, or more than $5,000 a year. The joint powers board says their goal is to keep the monthly bills for Ash River cabin owners to $100 per month. If so, they’d better adopt a different plan unless they intend to tax all St. Louis County residents to subsidize the operating and maintenance costs of the Ash River system. I would think most county taxpayers would have something to say about that.
We have no doubt that the elected officials who serve on the joint powers board are well meaning. But they are allowing themselves to be led down the primrose path by engineers with a built-in conflict of interest. They have been too willing to simply vote in favor of proposals recommended by the supposed experts, without conducting their own due diligence, or asking whether this is a sensible use of an enormous amount of public money.
The bottom line is this: there is only so much money available to help clean up Minnesota’s 15,000-plus lakes. When we spend truly astounding amounts of money to address a purported problem that has not been well-documented, other communities in Minnesota, where the need is far greater and the solutions far more affordable, will go wanting. Until the Voyageurs National Park Clean Water Joint Powers Board and their engineers can actually document a problem and devise a more sensible solution, they should not receive the funding they’re requesting. We need to make smarter decisions than that.