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Flushing out bad ones: Lake septic systems to be inspected

Becker County is not going to put up with failing septic systems on its lakes, and has developed a system to prioritize lakes that need the most help -- as well as to ensure that lake septic systems across the county are inspected every 10 years.

At this point, the program only applies to recreational and general development lakes.

"Any septic system over 10 years old will be required to provide a certificate of compliance or noncompliance," said county zoning administrator Patty Swenson. "They have that year to provide certification; if they're not compliant they have one year to upgrade."

The county will process several lakes every year, spread across the county so as not to overwork the local contractors who serve as licensed inspectors. Septic system owners will be contacted by mail, and a list of certified inspectors will be provided.

Inspections generally cost $150 to $300, depending on the type of septic system -- a mound system is more complex and generally costs more to inspect than a simple tank system, Swenson said.

Any disputes between property owners and inspectors will be resolved by inspections by county zoning staff and local Minnesota Pollution Control Agency employees.

Enforcement will be handled as with nuisance properties -- the owners will be given a chance to fix the problem themselves, and if they don't get the job done, the county will do it and assess the charges back to the property.

It's not a new program -- it dates back to 2007 -- but earlier this month the county board voted to make it a priority.

That means the zoning office will update its countywide data base and track septic systems as they "age out," at the 10-year mark. In theory, every lake septic system in the county will be inspected once every 10 years.

It also means the county has acted to prioritize its lakes.

The county contracted with RMB Environmental Laboratories in Detroit Lakes to develop criteria for ranking lakes by need, and to go ahead and prioritize all the recreational and general development lakes in Becker County.

That job is done.

Here's the criteria for the priority list:

• Long, skinny lakes are most in danger of over-development because of their shape -- there's often more development around them and less water than a large circular lake, for example, to naturally process all the human activity.

• Inlets -- Lakes with major inlets tend to be healthier because they are continually "flushed out" with fresh water. Their phosphorus content tends to come from downstream.

Closed lakes rank higher on the priority list because their phosphorus comes from septic and shoreline runoff.

• Water clarity -- lakes with declining water clarity trends received a higher priority, because something is clearly wrong.

• Oligotrophic lakes -- An oligotrophic lake has low nutrient concentrations and low plant growth. Those so ranked on the Trophic State Index are a higher priority because additional phosphorus to those lakes makes a much larger impact than in healthier eutrophic lakes.

Going by these criteria, Long Lake near Detroit Lakes is No. 1 on the priority list -- it has declining clarity, no major inlets, is non-circular and is oligotrophic.

Four lakes were ranked No. 2 -- Bad Medicine, Big Sugar Bush, Pickerel and Island.

Three lakes were ranked No. 3 -- Leif, Little Cormorant and Sand.

Lake Eunice is ranked No. 4.

Strawberry and Big Cormorant share the No. 5 ranking.

At No. 6 are Bijou (Beseau) and Stakke.

At No. 7 are Middle Cormorant, Cotton and Rock.

At no. 8 are Bass, Pearl and Munson.

Four lakes are ranked No. 9 -- Elbow, Buffalo, Two Inlets and Upper Cormorant.

At No. 10 are Juggler, Boot and Little Mantrap.

Lake Maud is ranked No. 11.

Eagle, Sauer and South Twin are ranked No. 12.

Town, Many Point and Little Bemidji are ranked No. 13.

Rossman Lake is ranked No. 14.

Eight lakes are ranked No. 15 -- Floyd, Toad, Melissa, Muskrat, Little Floyd, Nelson, Sallie and Height of Land.

Ranked No. 16 are Lake Six and Turtle Lake.

White Earth Lake is ranked No. 17.

Tulaby lake is ranked No. 18.

Six lakes are ranked No. 19 -- Ice Cracking, Shell, Net, Googun, Bullhead and Blueberry.

Straight Lake is ranked No. 20.

Fox and Ida are ranked No. 21.

Round Lake is ranked No. 22

And the final ranking is No. 23 -- Little Toad Lake.

Those rankings are subject to change if a lake slips in its clarity level or otherwise shows signs of unhealthiness, Swenson said.

The septic inspection program has the full support of the Becker County Coalition of Lake Associations, and in fact John Postovit of Becker County COLA "did a lot of background work on this," Swenson said. "He developed an education program for the lake associations, too."

It's rare for counties to address lake septic system compliance so proactively, and the MPCA has asked for information on Becker County's program to share with other counties, Swenson said.

"We've been leaders in the past," said County Board Chairman Barry Nelson. "It's good to be back in the leadership role."