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Lawmakers back Voyageurs sewer project

A series of sewage collection systems costing millions of dollars each and aimed at keeping untreated sewage out of lakes in Voyageurs National Park has gained support from Minnesota lawmakers in Washington.The Voyageurs National Park Clean Water...

Rainy Lake
A woman and her dog stand on a rocky point at sunrise on Rainy Lake. Rainy Lake is one of the bodies of water in Voyageurs National Park that a series of sewage collection systems would protect. (2006 file photo)

A series of sewage collection systems costing millions of dollars each and aimed at keeping untreated sewage out of lakes in Voyageurs National Park has gained support from Minnesota lawmakers in Washington.
The Voyageurs National Park Clean Water Project includes four separate sewage systems on Lake Kabetogama, Ash River, Rainy Lake and Crane Lake - the major waterways along the Ontario border that comprise Minnesota’s only national park.
Local officials established a joint powers board in 2009 to oversee the projects in an effort to solve the problem of poorly treated or untreated wastewater from failing septic systems seeping into the otherwise pristine lakes.
It’s estimated that between 41 percent to 84 percent of the existing septic systems on the lakes are failing to properly treat wastewater, depending on the area. One of the biggest problems is the rocky shoreline, which doesn’t allow for traditional septic systems to properly filter the wastewater.
“Centralized systems are really the only way that we are going to protect these lakes,” said Wade Pavleck, a Koochiching County commissioner who heads the joint powers board that also includes St. Louis County.
The new collection systems will hook up to homes, cabins and resorts on the lakes and move sewage to central treatment plants much like organized cities use. Work already has moved ahead on Crane Lake and is about to start on Kabetogama.
The current effort is aimed at building a sewer line to the Island View area of Rainy Lake, some 13 miles east of International Falls. The new collection system is expected to cost more than $17 million.

State lawmakers in 2014 approved $7.8 million in bonding money for the project. The state also has authorized $1 million in state Legacy sales tax money. Local residents who hook up to the new line will foot some $3.5 million. And Koochiching County has added $430,000.
That still leaves the project more than $4 million short, and that’s where local and state officials hope the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will come in.
“So far the only party that hasn’t stepped up to the plate is the federal government,’’ Pavleck said. “And it is a federal park. This is a federal resource. We can’t do it all on our own and do it right.”
The Kabetogama and Crane Lake projects are estimated at more than $3.6 million each. The Ash River project still is looking for suitable, vacant land on which to build a central system, Pavleck said.
In a letter released Friday, Minnesota lawmakers urged the Corps of Engineers to include money for the overall project in the agency’s 2016 Civil Works program budget.
Because the park is a national treasure, the sewage fix needs to see national funding, the lawmakers noted.
U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, along with U.S. Reps. Rick Nolan, Collin Peterson, Betty McCollum, Keith Ellison and Tim Walz, all signed the letter.
“As elected officials representing Minnesota, we are rightly concerned about protecting the water quality of our nation’s premier water-based park,” the lawmakers wrote. “Unfortunately, these waters can be contaminated by wastewater from existing developments. The water quality degradation threatens the long-term health of the ecosystem and the economic health of the tourism industry upon which a considerable share of the local economy is based. Based on these factors and the numerous benefits to Minnesota’s environment and rural economy, we ask you to allocate environmental infrastructure funding to this project.”
The lawmakers noted that Congress included $55 million in its fiscal 2016 budget for such projects, ordering the Corps to give priority to projects with great economic input, projects in rural areas and projects in areas of high poverty rates.
Voyageurs National Park was authorized by Congress in 1971. It covers 84,000 acres of water and 134,000 acres of land. Most of the park is accessible only by motorboat, kayak or canoe. The park is named after the French fur traders who canoed through the area in 1700s.

Voyageurs National Park Clean Water Project

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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