Center creates new environment-friendly

Erin Ghere

Living in rural Minnesota might become less costly thanks to work by the University’s Center for Rural Technology and Cooperative Development.
The rural technology center has developed water quality cooperatives for rural Minnesotans that will make dealing with septic system issues easier and cheaper for homeowners.
A water quality cooperative is a non-profit corporation that addresses the waste water disposal needs of rural homeowners without compromising the land on which they live.
The cooperatives serve both economical and environmental purposes.
“Every home in a rural area has to deal with waste water issues,” said Bob Sykes, landscape architecture associate professor.
Two years ago, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency determined it would cost $1.7 billion to replace the 330,000 systems in need of septic system upgrades in the near future.
The technology center found an alternative to individual septic tanks in the water quality cooperative.
The corporations would install and manage the waste water systems of large areas. During the 1997 legislative session, a bill was passed that granted permission for permits to be given to large areas for this purpose.
Homeowners benefit from the cooperatives in several ways.
A new septic system will cost anywhere from $10,000 to $18,000; with the cooperative, the homeowners can pay a monthly service fee rather than take out a bank loan to pay the cost.
Previously, without taking out a bank loan, most rural homeowners could not afford the upgrade, Sykes said.
The cooperative’s monthly fee is based on how much the system is used, along with a $20 to $25 yearly fee, and has a lower interest rate than a bank loan.
“It is far cheaper than a loan or the payments on a loan,” Sykes said.
Additionally, the system does not have to be paid off before the house is sold; the monthly fee is simply attached.
Other benefits to the homeowners include greater fire coverage.
Insurance companies covering homes in Rockford Township, an area within the Headwaters cooperative’s span, have noted that water from the ponds where the waste water will be stored can be used to fight fires.
This leads to a $230 annual savings to each insured homeowner.
The center is also looking at the possibility of using water from the cooperatives for geo-thermal heating and cooling of homes. With this option, homeowners would pay very little money to heat and cool their homes, as well as being more environmentally sound.
Other benefits to the environment would result from heightened quality of the waste water that is put into lakes and rivers, Sykes said. “The water will be as clean as possible.”
The waste will be treated where it is created, as opposed to a large collective system, resulting in a more environmentally friendly system.
The cooperatives stemmed from the way urban municipalities combine their waste water disposal. The urban technologies are not sustainable in rural areas.
Two cooperatives, serving as pilot projects, have been formed by the rural technology center through a $300,000 grant from the state, Sykes said.
The Headwaters Rural Utility Association and the Rainy River Rural Utility Association are awaiting Pollution Control Agency permits before they can begin offering their services to homeowners.
The rural technology center is also working to get a grant from the Legislature this year to form two more cooperatives; one would operate in the Minnesota River basin and the other in the Lower Mississippi River basin.
Between the four cooperatives, nearly 80 percent of the state’s land would be covered, although they are voluntary.
The Environmental Protection Agency has identified the program as unique.
“It’s solving a technological problem by regulating and financing,” Sykes said.
Originally there was no path to create a cooperative of this kind in Minnesota, so the rural technology center used the regulatory path municipal governments use.
The center was organized in 1995 through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since then, its purpose has been to provide the means to local governments who wish to learn about and use alternative technologies.
“Different kinds of new development can preserve large areas of space,” Sykes said.