November 13 workshop will address septic systems, private wells, and other groundwater topics
Nearly 140 years ago, Minneapolis first began pumping from the Mississippi River to provide drinking water for the city’s growing population. At the time, the river was a dumping ground for human sewage, garbage, and carcasses from the local slaughterhouses. Thousands of people died from typhoid and cholera as a result of drinking contaminated river water. Eventually, in the early 1900s, both Minneapolis and St. Paul began chlorinating their drinking water supplies and these two horrible diseases disappeared almost overnight. After another twenty years, the first wastewater treatment plant was built in 1938 and the Mississippi began a long, slow journey to recovery.
Today, Pool 2 of the Mississippi River (Ford Dam to Hastings Dam) supports 125 species of fish, the water south of Pig’s Eye Lake is usually clean enough to swim in, and bald eagle populations along the Mississippi are soaring. Municipal drinking water in Minneapolis and St. Paul is clean and safe to drink.
Why is this story important? The first step to fixing a problem is to recognize that it is happening. One hundred years ago, people didn’t consider the Mississippi River to be an amenity. The only people who lived near the river were those too poor to live somewhere else, and as a result, the river’s problems were invisible even as it flowed directly through the Twin Cities metro area in plain sight.
Here in Washington County, we get 100% of our drinking water from groundwater. Statewide, groundwater provides 75% of all drinking water. In most parts of the county, groundwater is still clean and abundant enough to support local communities. But in some places, aquifers have been contaminated by industry and agriculture. In other locations, we are using groundwater more quickly than it can be replenished. But, because our water supplies are underground, literally hidden from view, these groundwater issues are sometimes invisible as well.
On Wednesday, Nov. 13, 5:30-7:30pm Washington County will offer a free workshop for residents that addresses groundwater topics including septic systems, private wells, healthy homes, and household hazardous waste. As part of this class, the county will offer free water testing for coliform bacteria and nitrates to all participants. The workshop will be held at Hugo City Hall.
Unlike municipal water supplies, which are tested annually, homeowners are responsible for testing their own private wells to ensure that the water is safe to drink. One concern is bacterial contamination, which can occur during the well drilling process or subsequent repairs. Coliform bacteria may also be found if sewage or surface water are leaking into a well. Nitrates are also a concern, especially for families with infants, as high nitrate levels can cause a potentially fatal disease known as “blue baby syndrome.”
There are also more than 16,000 individual septic systems in Washington County. When properly designed, installed, and maintained, these private systems provide good treatment of wastewater. If they begin to leak, however, they can contaminate nearby lakes, streams and wells. Sometimes, these problems can go undetected for years.
Those who pre-register at least one week in advance (by Nov. 4) will receive their kit in the mail and can bring their water samples to the class to be picked up. There will also be extra kits at the class that participants can take on a first come, first served basis. Samples can then be dropped off at county locations after the class.