Mower County launches initiative to achieve countywide compliance for private septic systems

Mower County launched an initiative today to complete the final phase of its years-long effort to achieve countywide compliance for private septic systems to better protect ground and surface waters.

During a regular meeting, the Mower County Board of Commissioners and its Environmental Services staff announced their 2020 plan to complete the final phase of its subsurface sewage treatment systems (SSTS) initiative. The effort will include public education, septic-ordinance revisions, low-interest loan program for septic system installation, community sewage treatment studies and collaborations with homeowners to bring their septic systems into compliance.

Mower County commissioners are committed to the SSTS initiative.

“Non-compliant septic systems contaminate our local rivers, streams and groundwater,” Mower County Commissioner Tim Gabrielson said. “Groundwater is the source of drinking water for almost everyone in Mower County.”

Mower County, which first began permitting septic systems in 1958, started the SSTS initiative in 2008 in response to growing concerns about bacterial impairments in local water bodies. The initiative’s first stage involved completing a SSTS Imminent Public Health Threat (IPHT) inventory and responding to systems with the most-critical compliance concerns, including those considered “imminent health threats” and systems adjacent to rivers and streams.

For more than 20 years, Minnesota has been identifying and replacing inadequate septic systems that total more than 500,000 systems across the state and treat sewage from about 25 percent of the state’s citizens, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). Since 2008, inspection triggers and other compliance programs used by local governments statewide have increased the number of septic systems that meet current state standards. 

Poorly functioning septic systems are a threat to human health and the environment because they might not remove pathogens, nutrients and other chemicals from the used water before it enters rivers, lakes or groundwater resources.

Overall, Mower County has approximately 3,445 private septic systems. Since 2008, Mower County homeowners have installed 953 new individual septic systems. Multiple community sewage-treatment systems also have been developed and numerous homes have been annexed into the City of Austin’s municipal sewage-treatment system. This included pockets of homes along the Cedar River and Turtle Creek.

Mower County has reached about 70 percent compliance and ranks 58th out of 87 counties in septic-system compliance, said Angela Lipelt, supervisor for Mower County Environmental Services. This final phase of the initiative will address the remaining 30 percent of septic systems that need to be evaluated for compliance, she said.

Due to unusually wet conditions, only 34 septic systems were installed in 2019, Lipelt said. For this year, 26 septic systems are designed and awaiting installation. Another 44 systems have been identified as needing replacement but have not had their designs finalized yet.

Those in need of a septic replacement, she said, need to contact a septic contractor as soon as possible to get on the contractor’s list. Septic contractors’ schedules usually fill quickly and they already will be addressing a back log of projects from last year. Homeowners can find a listing of licensed septic contractors on the Mower County Public Works’ website.

As part of the new septic initiative, Mower County hosted a free workshop presented by University of Minnesota’s Onsite Sewage Treatment Program on Jan. 13 for homeowners on septic systems and private wells at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center in Austin. About 80 people attended the workshop and received free guides for septic system owners in addition to well-testing kits.

Mower County Environmental Services can assist with low-interest loans for septic replacements and help with other septic questions at 507-437-7718. The office is at 1105 8th Ave. N.E. in Austin. You can go online at:

MPCA and the EPA also offer extensive information on septic systems, including proper usage and maintenance.