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Big Lake sewer project is 'dead'

The minutes from the Perch Lake Township annual meeting in March were stark. “The sewer project is dead.”

After months of negotiations in 2019, the failure to reach a new joint powers agreement between the Big Lake Area Sanitary District and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa made clear in December that the death notice for improving lake water quality was nigh.

Sanitary district chairman John Frederickson wrote the obituary on Dec. 12, saying all efforts to resolve differences between the district and the band “have been exhausted without success, and any further action will result in monies spent with no assurance of reimbursement.”

So the sewer project went dark. The BLASD website is no longer online. Frederick said the district had ceased all spending and action until further notice.

For the most part, outside of township meeting updates earlier this year, there has been silence.

The Pine Knot News was unsuccessful in several attempts to seek comments from band members, specifically those on the Reservation Business Committee, township officials and sanitary district board members.

When Carlton County’s Heather Cunningham received Frederickson’s letter in December, she had planned to wait six months and then talk to the county board in putting an action plan together on how to deal with the noncompliant sewer systems along the lake.

Cunningham is the county zoning and environmental services administrator.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed her timeline, but Cunningham expects to talk to the board soon. She said there are eight systems the county is aware of that need an upgrade.

Calculating who needs to upgrade is complicated because the county has no jurisdiction over tribal members on the tribal land that surrounds the lake. Of the estimated 286 properties the sewer line was expected to serve, 79 are owned by band members. There are 108 non-band residences, 93 seasonal properties and six commercial lots. The county requires reporting on septic system compliance as part of home sales or upgrades to properties that require permits. Cunningham said that while the county can’t control the systems used by tribal member owners, many comply in order to keep their options open should they ever decide to sell their residences to parties who aren’t tribal members.

Under the sanitary district plan, a sewer line would have connected Big Lake area homes and cabins to the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District. Water quality in Big Lake has been on the decline for decades. Sewage seeping into the lake from failing septic systems is believed to be a contributing factor.

A Fond du Lac study in 1998 stated that a hodgepodge of septic systems could be found along the lake and “many of these existing systems are failing.”

The sanitary district was formed in January of 2007 and township and band officials made up its board. Last year, the district needed to upgrade its joint powers agreement with the band in order to keep state and federal funding flowing for the project.

While there has been a generally positive reaction by residents to cleaning up the lake, the cost per household became an issue. It was expected that residents could see a $600 annual increase in property taxes to pay for the system with monthly septic costs running just more than $100.

The cost became an issue in the joint powers agreement discussion last year. The band said it was prohibitive for its members. It also feared a lack of control over tribal land. RBC vice chairman Bruce Savage told the district last year about concerns over “cost, fairness and control” of the project.

Perch Lake Township Supervisor Keith Depre reported on the status of funding since the impasse killed the sewer project. He said a local levy will continue for two years to pay off $183,000 in loans for system design services. He said the project will lose $12 million it had attracted in loans and cash for the project along with about $10 million in federal and state aid. Most of that money was contingent on the joint powers agreement. Some of the funding was tied to tribal improvements and some was dependent on assurances that all customers within the district would pay the levies and monthly costs associated with the project. Without an agreement, there is no guarantee that tribal members will pay the fees.

Depre told the township board in February that sanitary district board member Wayne Dupuis said the band’s business committee was unlikely to budge. “Trying to save any funding at this point is a challenge without a joint powers agreement,” Depre reported.

Frederickson, chairman of the district, was asked by the township board about the urgency in cleaning up Big Lake. “The water is in need of a project,” the minutes note him as saying. “Big Lake has been officially downgraded. It has seen an increase in blooms and weeds. Those who are knowledgeable have advised governmental entities to intervene.”

The sanitary district lives on, but township members will need to decide what purpose it serves without a project. Frederickson said a “new mechanism” will be needed. “The current mechanism is not working to protect the lake.”

Editor's note: This story was corrected online to reflect the correct spelling of Depre.

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