Minnesota is swimming in sewage
The wind is up this morning on the Cedar River. Dave Legvold from the Cannon River Watershed Partnership, a nonprofit organization, paddles out just north of Austin.
Legvold suspects sewage from the unincorporated town of Woodhaven drains through straight pipes into the Cedar River. To be sure, he's sampling the water for E. coli.
Just upstream of the community, he dips a plastic sample jar into the water for a baseline test.
"I'll label it '001' and put it in the iced cooler," he says.
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Legvold tests the sample. It has 200 E. coli colonies per milliliter. That's right at the state's minimum water quality standard. So the water is technically safe.
E. coli is carried in fecal matter. It can make people deathly ill. E. coli in the water is also a sign that other bacteria like salmonella are present. The MPCA staff say anecdotally, they know the presence of these organisms in Minnesota's waters has caused cases of typhoid, cholera and hepatitis.
Legvold is on the river today because no one else in Mower County, or indeed in many other counties, is looking for straight pipes. Legvold reaches Woodhaven and paddles slowly along the shore.
"What we're looking for are pieces of toilet paper or pieces of human waste that tend to float out from a pipe, or obviously dark flowing areas," he says.
Straight pipes can be made of PVC, flexible coil or old steel. Legvold thinks in Woodhaven, many are buried under lawns and discharge underwater into the river.
He tests the water near a few homes and finds the E. coli count is now three times the state minimum standard.
Then Legvold hikes into a clump of woods between some houses following a small stream. There, running down the slope from one backyard, sits a black flexible pipe.
"With all the white tissue paper, I'm not so sure it's just washing machine water," Legvold says wryly.
Legvold lifts the pipe and a little water trickles into his container.
"We can grab a sample here. Remind me not to pick my teeth or rub my eyes," he says.
There's so much E. coli in this water when the sample is tested it goes off the top of the scale. Farther back, he finds another straight pipe which produces the same results.
Legvold and his organization are gathering samples to try to force the county to get rid of these straight pipes. He says it's difficult to get the county or the state to do anything because it's easy to ignore the law.
Dennis Hayes works on compliance issues for the MPCA. He acknowledges that he only goes after straight pipes when someone complains. Since mid-2006, the MPCA has received 26 straight pipe complaints statewide.
MPCA staff say it's hard to put a figure on the cost of looking for straight pipes. It can take days to locate a straight pipe, and sometimes months to find the person responsible.
Hayes says these pipes are a priority, but not as big a priority as other major polluters.
"The discharge from five homes on a straight pipe is fairly small risk in terms of the environmental impact, compared to a metro discharge from a wastewater treatment plant," he says. However, Hayes says the pipes are still a health threat.
Straight pipes can serve one household, or several thousand. A 2006 MPCA county survey estimated that statewide, at least 48 small towns used straight pipes to discharge sewage for tens of thousands of people.
Hayes says those numbers are incomplete, since 14 counties didn't provide any information for the survey.
Further, county officials in north central and northwest Minnesota reported their regions don't have any straight pipes. An MPCA official in the region says that's probably not true.
The MPCA wrote the state's basic septic code, but it's mostly the counties that enforce the law.
The people who likely know what's in the ground are inspectors like Bill Buckley, Mower County's environmental health supervisor. He compiled the list of Mower County's unsewered communities for the MPCA.
Buckley is a soft-spoken man who chooses his words carefully. When asked if the county takes straight pipes seriously enough, he says he can't answer the question.
When asked if he personally takes the issue seriously enough, he pauses for a long time before answering.
"I don't know," he says eventually. "That's hard to answer. I would like to think so, but whether I do enough, I guess I'm not sure."
Buckley says the County Board directs him to focus on new septic systems, and that's what he does. In the case of Woodhaven, Buckley goes by the county records, which show the homes have septic systems.
When asked what he would say to someone who said they had seen straight pipes in Woodhaven, he says it's possible.
"I wouldn't doubt it. I would believe you," he says. But Buckley doesn't have the time or the directive to check it out. Several inspectors in other counties told MPR they're too busy to hunt for straight pipes.
Years ago, Mower County considered doing an inventory of its septic systems to find straight pipes. But County Commissioner Richard Cummings says the board changed its mind at the last minute.
"They were not willing to expend the money and staff time, and become somewhat of a police state," he says.
Without a directive by a county board, community groups can't do much either.
Aaron Wills with Southeast Minnesota Wastewater Initiative works with communities to get rid of their straight pipes. He says if neither the county nor the MPCA will enforce the law, his job is next to impossible.
"It's probably going to cost a fair amount, $8,000 to $10,000 a house," Wills says. "And then the conversation ends there. Most people aren't interested in paying $10,000 for something that isn't causing them, personally, any problem."
A small municipal system can easily cost $1 million. While residents and business owners who use straight pipes are the people polluting, it's the counties and the MPCA that aren't consistently enforcing the law.
The MPCA says as a result of rising concerns about impaired waters, it will add a few staff to step up enforcement on straight pipes next spring.