County sees another big year for septics

Published 6:02 pm Friday, February 18, 2022

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Mower County experienced another busy year installing septic systems as part of a countywide initiative launched two years ago to better protect local waterways and underground drinking water sources.

In 2021, Mower County Environmental Services issued 128 permits for new subsurface sewage treatment systems (SSTS), with 112 of those systems completed to bring properties into compliance, said Angela Lipelt, Mower County’s environmental services supervisor.

This construction followed a record year in 2020 for Mower County when 128 new septic systems were installed, topping a previous record of 125 systems from a decade earlier.

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Last year, the townships with the most septics installed were Austin (10); Adams (nine); Racine (nine); and LeRoy (eight).

About 62 percent of the new systems in 2021 were built in the Cedar River watershed (western half of Mower), with the other 38 percent in the Root River and Upper Iowa watersheds of the county’s eastern half.

Mower County’s Board of Commissioners launched the SSTS initiative in January 2020 to complete the final phase of the county’s long-running efforts to achieve septic compliance countywide.

“Human health and the environment are threatened by poorly functioning septic systems,” Lipelt said. “All our efforts at the county are aimed at more easily finding and fixing septic systems that likely are not removing pathogens, nutrients and other chemicals from wastewater before it enters our groundwater, lakes and streams.”

Some changes in recent years have included the county adding compliance-inspection prompts; commercial and industrial septic systems needing to maintain constant compliance through inspections or operating permits; and septic systems (if not compliant) needing to be upgraded before transferring property or an escrow will need to be established for its transfer.

In 2020, the Mower County Board revised the county’s septic ordinance by adding more prompts for compliance inspections, specifically for land-use permits, including zoning permits. This only is for septic systems more than 20 years old or undocumented and assumed to be older than 20 years.

County commissioners in April 2021 spring then revised the ordinance to allow for “minor structure” exceptions to the county’s certificate of compliance requirement. This allows people to make small improvements to their property without risking big consequences with their septic system, such as being found to own a non-compliant system, Lipelt said.

County staff will do a zoning review on the minor-structure requests and identify potential issues for the landowners along with what, if any, consequences there could be next time they need a permit or want to sell or transfer the property, Lipelt said.

“It’s helpful education for landowners,” she said. “The county struggles to get septic-compliance information to property owners so this is a way to have their attention when they visit our office but without consequence. It lets them prepare.”

About 18 septic systems with permits issued in 2021 can move to construction in 2022, Lipelt said. A few projects also began construction but weren’t completed before the year’s end.

Mower County Environmental Services, 1105 Eighth Ave. N.E. in Austin, can assist with low-interest loans for septic replacements and other septic questions at (507) 437-7718 and online at: