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Baxter City Council: Weekend retreat centers around neighborhoods without water, sewer lines

BAXTER--To install sewer lines, or not to install sewer lines, that is the question--for the Baxter City Council anyway, as they map out the future of their city.

Members of the Baxter City Council and staff convene a retreat Saturday, March 9, to discuss future infrastructure initiatives for the city of Baxter -- a community with a number of neighborhoods lacking subterranean infrastructure. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch
Members of the Baxter City Council and staff convene a retreat Saturday, March 9, to discuss future infrastructure initiatives for the city of Baxter -- a community with a number of neighborhoods lacking subterranean infrastructure. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

BAXTER-To install sewer lines, or not to install sewer lines, that is the question-for the Baxter City Council anyway, as they map out the future of their city.

Environmental and water quality concerns for a city resting on a high water table anchored the conversation. Maintaining a safe and sustainable water system that's up to city and state standards-whether via a more urbanized sewer system, or enforcing stronger regulatory oversight with private septic systems-stood as the key question of the morning.

The issue is a long-standing one, going back decades to the 1970s when the city set a goal to establish subterranean water and sewer in its undeveloped neighborhoods, City Administrator Brad Chapulis said.

Initially, the city exerted relatively little control and oversight over aspects of its developments, though the council's role has grown and evolved in the decades since. This, Chapulis said, resulted in gaps in terms of record keeping and monitoring, as well as accountability for development along these neighborhoods.

Now that many septic systems are reaching the end of their lifespans-and the potential for harming the water supply increases-the city is running out of time to address these issues, Chapulis said.

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"The proverbial can kept getting kicked down the road. Well, now we're at the end of the road," said Chapulis, who noted there were talks to extend subterranean infrastructure to these neighborhoods 15 to 20 years ago. "Unfortunately, it's now at a point where we have to have these deeper and difficult conversations."

"Nobody in this building had anything to do with that, but now it's our obligation-morally, environmentally, fiduciarily," Mayor Darrel Olson said of council decisions in decades past.

While it's been a stated goal and a preferred option to install subterranean water and sewer lines, that isn't the only route the city could take, Public Works Director Trevor Walter noted. Residents have balked at assessments associated with reconstruction projects of this nature, such as the North Forestview project, and council members noted there are other neighborhoods where residents may reject the idea of installing subterranean infrastructure.

Council member Todd Holman said there's been cases of outspoken residents-even some who left Baxter for financial or other reasons-opposed to every major infrastructure project. The city has to make decisions that benefit the community as a whole, long-term, he said, and not allow dissenting voices to dictate its actions.

Typically, installing subterranean lines proves more effective long-term-depending on the topography, water system, city and soil consistency-but there are individual septic systems that perform better than city wastewater treatment systems, Walter said. If the council wanted to leave these septic system alone, it would be a matter of stricter regulation of their use and upkeep to protect the watershed, he noted.

A number of Baxter streets do not have extensive subterranean water and sewer lines, but instead depend mostly on 393 independent septic systems. The streets factoring in the discussion include:

• North Forestview Drive.

• South Forestview Drive.

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• Eagle Ridge Drive.

• Lyndale Drive.

• Jadewood Drive.

• Jewelwood Drive.

• Olivewood Drive.

• Deerwood Drive.

• Brentwood Circle.

It quickly became clear, judging by the overall theme of discussions, city staff and council members felt further studies would be needed to give Baxter a clearer direction, as well as provide the city evidence of compromised septic systems to compel property owners to either submit to increased scrutiny, or fund infrastructure projects through assessments.

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Olson said there's been a certain amount of backlash against pushing for subterranean infrastructure projects-especially from an environmental perspective-because the city lacked formal tests, studies or similar forms of documentation indicating whether the water quality is threatened or compromised.

Council member Zach Tabatt echoed these sentiments and said the city should look to proactively communicate to the community these concerns in a clear and concise manner. The root of these efforts, he noted, are evaluations of the watershed and individual septic systems, as well as estimates of how much construction initiatives would cost. While homeowners are expected to test whether their septic systems are leaching into the surrounding ecosystem once every three years, Chapulis said, it's largely an honor system and there are swaths of Baxter where there's little information on the current state of the watershed.

According to a memo by architectural-engineering firm Widseth Smith Nolting, sampling for nitrate and chloride with two borings and a brief summary report would cost between $5,500 to $6,000 for each unsewered area. Increasing that number to four borings would incur an additional cost of $750. Sampling for arsenic for 10 wells would cost been $1,500 to $2,000.

In terms of research, a memo by architectural-engineering firm Bolton & Menk indicates it would cost roughly $19,308 to collect prior city septic and building documentation and private well information, then use that information to create base maps of the neighborhoods and an evaluation based on these findings.

In addition, Chapulis noted there are state and county agencies, such as the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Crow Wing County, that could provide services in terms of water quality inspections.

In conclusion, members and city staff noted it would be best to properly study and evaluate the current status of the involved streets, as well as to gather information and re-evaluate assessment rates if the city moves forward with a bevy of projects to install sewer and water lines.

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