Silver Creek finds a way to handle its wastewaterIn the early 2000s development along the corridor between Two Harbors and the Silver Creek tunnel became the topic of growing concern for residents, township officials and Lake County. An area that had been the location of summer cabins and small mom and pop resorts had grown to include significantly more year-round dwellings, larger resorts such as Superior Shores and other businesses—155 parcels in total, according to data collected by Silver Creek Township. While this growth brought economic benefits to the region, it also placed demands on the systems used for waste water treatment.
By: Tammy Francois, Lake County News Chronicle
In the early 2000s development along the corridor between Two Harbors and the Silver Creek tunnel
became the topic of growing concern for residents, township officials and Lake County. An area
that had been the location of summer cabins and small mom and pop resorts had grown to include
significantly more year-round dwellings, larger resorts such as Superior Shores and other businesses—
155 parcels in total, according to data collected by Silver Creek Township. While this growth brought
economic benefits to the region, it also placed demands on the systems used for waste water treatment.
According to Mike Hoops, Chair of the Silver Creek Township Board of Supervisors, in the 1930’s the
area that was once served by a 5,000 gallon wastewater tank for a week’s collection, now requires the
means to process over 200,000 gallons per month.
Residents in the area volunteered to allow an evaluation of their current individual sewage treatment
systems and the results confirmed that there were problems.
“…an evaluation shows 54 percent [of systems] fail to protect ground water and 21 percent are an
imminent threat to public health or safety,” the findings said, adding that “the restrictive soils (slowly
permeable clayey soils with bedrock outcropping)…create locations that cannot support a new or
replacement system, limit[ing] homeowners to use of holding tanks.”
Later, Lake County approached the Minnesota Department of Transportation about improving the stretch of Highway 61 north of Two Harbors, but the project would have required widening the road and encroachment on residential land. With current zoning requirements, the reduction in lot size would have placed some septic mound systems outside of legal parameters for their use.
MnDot deemed the project too expensive, said Hull.
The conversation didn’t end there, however. Years before, Silver Creek Township had tackled the
challenge of developing a water treatment system in the Castle Danger area and had some experience
under their collective belts. The wheels began to turn.
“If the sewage system is the problem standing in the way of fixing the road, why can’t we do it? We’ve
done this before. We did it in Castle Danger, we can do it at Stewart River,” said Greg Hull, another
member of the Silver Creek Township Board of Supervisors, recalling the conversation.
In fact, the system in Castle Danger was not only adequately handling the increasing demand for waste
water treatment in the area, in an interesting twist, it was doing so using technology that had been
developed in desert climates halfway around the globe.
Three poly-lined stabilization ponds were dug on a 115 acre site off County Road 3 (the old Dump Road)
for the collection of wastewater. Each pond holds waste water for a period of time until it meets an acceptable level of water quality, at which time it is released into the next pond.
“[With] oxygen, time and biology, the water will clean itself. By the third pond you can see the bottom
in feet of water,” said Hoops summarizing the process. Once the water has gone through the pond
system and a series of disc-like filters developed in Israel, the newly treated water is
released into the surrounding acreage using a drip irrigation system. “This was one of the first systems
of its kind in Minnesota,” said Hoops, although it is more widely used in places where water is scarce.
“Israelis used this method in the dessert because the drip line system waters the plants at the root level.
We’re one of the few and one of the first to use it here. The technology is just coming into vogue here,”
The idea for this kind of system for the Castle Danger waste water treatment system was pitched by
an engineering firm in the discussion phase of the project, said Hoops and many
residents supported the idea because it kept the nitrogen and phosphorus—contained in the soaps and
detergents we use and are still present in waste water after treatment-- out of Lake Superior.
The plan for a waste water treatment system for the Stewart River Project Area is still being finalized.
The sources of funding –grants and loans—have not been secured, so the overall costs to residents has
not been determined.
“Every issue in politics comes down to two issues. People want to know how much it will cost and who’s
going to pay for it. Once those questions are answered, everything else is just details,” Hull
said with a laugh.
The target figure, however, has been set .
“All of the planning and projecting of fees and costs have been done with a firm $100 cap for each
residential user. That $100 would be a combination of the monthly user fee plus the initial cost of hooking into the system, amortized over the life of the system,” said Hull.
Current estimates for the project are $5.5 million dollars,
according to a two-page description of the project developed by Silver Creek Township, “a more definite
estimated construction cost will be developed during the facility plan.”
This uncertainty has some residents concerned.
“The information meetings were not informational. I believe that [the supervisors] are telling us everything they know, but we need to know how assessments will be decided and what they will do if there are people who become delinquent in payment,” said Linda Weckman, a resident of the area where the new system is being proposed.
Weckman said she has spoken to people in the Castle Danger area whose rates have increased and she has not received enough assurance from the Silver Creek Township supervisors that they can control costs in the Stewart River area.
“I could be all wrong,” she said, “but I think someone should be able to tell me how much this will cost. If someone can answer my questions, I might say ‘okay, we need this system,’ but there haven’t been any answers.”
Weckman said that even at a maximum of $100 per household, the cost might not be affordable to some residents.
“I drive up 61 every day and have for the last eight years. Some of these people up here are damn happy to have heat all winter. How are they going to afford $100 more a month?” She asked.
“I just think we have to go back and look at all the options. Bigger is not necessarily better,” she added.
Silver Creek Township has been looking at a variety of possible sources of funding including federal, state and local loans and grants. It will also turn to local residents to foot some of the bill. According to the description “it is estimated Stewart River Project System users are capable of financing $1.5-2 million, plus operations and maintenance and capital replacement costs depending on interest rates, final user count and the monthly charge.”
Both Hoops and Hull emphasize that the project is not a done deal. Alternatives are being considered including conveying waste water to Two Harbors to be treated in its municipal system.
“We’re trying to keep the total cost below $100 a month, but that cost depends on how much we get in
grants and how much we get in loans, said Hull, if we can’t get a high enough percentage of grants and
loans, we won’t build the system.”
Echoing that sentiment, Hoops said,” this system is not going to be built if it’s not affordable. We want it
to be a good project that everyone can be proud of.”