Greenspace: Community facilitator finds tough solutions to old wastewater issues

July 29, 2018

Sheila Craig

In 2004, a pipe containing sewage from 15 homes in the rural Nicolville community in Mower County was draining about 6,750 gallons of sewage per day into nearby Dobbins Creek.

The pipe was just one of many outdated septic systems in Southeast Minnesota that came to the attention of Sheila Craig, a community sewage treatment facilitator with the Southeast Minnesota Wastewater Initiative.

Since 2003, Craig has spearheaded efforts to help small communities and rural townships in seven Southeast Minnesota counties replace out-of-date or dysfunctional septic systems in 22 areas. Her work has encompassed projects of all sizes, from installing a community sewer system in 2010 for the 15 Nicolville homes to facilitating discussions with the city of Oronoco on using recent state funding to address their lack of municipal sewers.

Twenty-two completed projects might not sound like much for 15 years of work, but most projects take between four and seven years to complete, if not longer. This doesn’t surprise Craig, who pointed out that SMWI doesn’t get involved unless the situation is already more complex than a city or community can handle on its own.

“We say that if there were easy solutions, we would not get them,” she said.

Tough solutions, old problems

Noncompliant septic systems, some more than 50 years old, are common in older, often rural, communities not connected to municipal systems. It’s not unusual, Craig says, for these to be the first system ever installed on the property. Yet despite their age, many don’t raise red flags for homeowners because they still seem to work.

“They would tell you it’s working fine,” Craig said. “They mean that it’s not backing up in their basement or their toilet. It goes away, it disappears.”

But what these systems don’t do, Craig says, is adequately treat the sewage according to today’s standards. Noncompliant systems may drain into a ditch, stream or other body of water, or leak insufficiently treated sewage into groundwater.

A retired University of Minnesota Extension Educator, Craig insists she’s not a sewage expert, although she’s become very familiar with the topic. Instead, Craig uses her experience as a community facilitator to bring elected officials and community members together with knowledgeable engineers and planners to help coordinate the best solutions.

“Our goal is to work with the residents so they’re not just being told what the options are,” Craig said. “We try to bring them information so they can help select the best option.”

Lois Hackbarth, a homeowner in the Cedar Beach neighborhood of Oronoco Township, worked with Craig between 2013 and 2016 to install a community system for 23 homes. She said Craig’s involvement was key to their success.

“She knew what steps to take, she knew what grants to pursue, she knew all the people that needed to be contacted,” Hackbarth said. “Going into this, we really didn’t know what it was all about, but she just was very, very knowledgeable about everything.”

Problem solving

Solutions for wastewater woes vary widely, Craig says — so much so that no two projects are the same. She’s worked on projects arranging annexation of rural properties by nearby cities to connect them to municipal systems, while in others she’s helped groups of neighbors come together to build shared wastewater treatment systems.

In addition to facilitating discussion, Craig also helps communities secure grant aid to make installing new systems more affordable.

But despite having 20-plus successful solutions under her belt, Craig doesn’t get to rest on her laurels for long. SMWI has 14 new projects underway, all in different stages of the process and moving at different speeds.

“It’s like having a bunch of balls and trying to balance them all at once,” Craig said of her job.

It’s a balancing act she seems to be doing well, since some communities have come to her multiple times to address septic issues. A recent project being planned for the Sunset Bay neighborhood in Oronoco Township will be the third time Craig and the township have teamed up to improve water quality along the Zumbro River and Lake Zumbro.

Craig says 15 years of starting conversations about proper wastewater treatment has flown by, full of positive changes for the communities she’s worked in.

What hasn’t changed, however, is that no matter how many times Craig starts out with environmental hazards and noncompliant sewer systems, she always finishes with a community-approved solution.

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