The wooden outhouse that greets boaters on remote Crane Lake is much like nearly every other lakeside biffy in Minnesota: functional, but on a hot summer day, fragrant.
That’s about to change, under orders from the State Capitol.
The rustic john is slated to be replaced with a modern restroom with flush toilets at a cost of up to $300,000. It will hook up to a million-dollar sewer pipe under construction, an expansion of Crane Lake’s wastewater treatment system that some locals say is flushing away tax dollars.
“I have never understood this whole project from the beginning,” said Crane Lake resident Joe Bonner, a resort worker. “It makes no sense.”
The sewer project illustrates the quiet deals tucked into bills that Iron Range lawmakers are so adept at delivering. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wasn’t planning to upgrade its boat landing outhouse. Legislators earmarked $300,000 in 2013 and told the DNR to install it.
The money for the pipe itself hinged on a one-time appropriation of surplus taconite tax revenue, distributions recently criticized by the Office of the Legislative Auditor because there’s no application process.
Such formalities aren’t really necessary when you’re intimate with what your community needs, said Rep. David Dill, a DFLer who lives in Crane Lake and championed the project. Dill had assists from fellow Range DFL lawmakers Sen. David Tomassoni and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk.
“Our communities love us because we can do this kind of thing,” Dill said. “This is about water quality and protecting our water for future generations.”
The backdrop to the project is a broader Range effort to eliminate malfunctioning septic systems seen by some as threatening the waters of Voyageurs National Park and “sewer up” the sparsely populated area.
But Crane Lake’s portion isn’t sitting well with some residents who may have to pay to hook up to the system.
It’s even puzzled a technical adviser on the project.
“A very expensive pipe is going out there for a very small amount of water,” said Sara Heger, a septic specialist at the University of Minnesota.
The pipe under construction will run 1.1 miles up Handberg Road to the boat landing, where the DNR will likely have to drill a well to provide water for the restroom. There’s a marina, campground and homes nearby that the sewer line will eventually serve as well.
Crane Lake’s new restroom will join an elite corps of DNR biffs. Of the 1,500 or so toilets at DNR boat landings around Minnesota, fewer than 10 flush.
For years, the DNR has paid a contractor $250 once a year to pump the outhouse and haul away 150 to 250 gallons of sewage, not much by outhouse standards, said Joe Majerus, a DNR supervisor in Tower.
Majerus said he’s unaware of any environmental issues with the pit toilet, and he’s concerned about having to maintain the new facility.
Crane Lake deserves a proper restroom, Rep. Dill said. The boat landing is a top access point to Voyageurs National Park, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Canada, he said. Nearby Ash River has a $7 million boat ramp and visitor center, he noted.
The existing outhouse is used by “hundreds of people a week” in the summer, and it gets disgusting, he said.
“All you have to do is call Jeff Sanborn at the nearby marina and ask him what it smells like on a hot July day. It stinks. People don’t use it and they pee in the bushes and defecate in the bushes too because they don’t want to go in it,” said Dill.
Sanborn said that aside from the smell, the outhouse is not a real problem for him.
“People wander over here and you hear about it,” said Sanborn.
Sanborn supports the sewer extension. Others don’t.
Brent Bystrom, a Twin Cities engineer whose parents’ cabin is on Crane Lake, noted that even the Hoover Dam restroom doesn’t have running water and flush toilets. The Crane Lake project is a “blatant waste” of public funds that won’t improve the environment, Bystrom said.
The parents of Bonner and Bystrom are among the two dozen residents and businesses near the road who may eventually have to hook up to the sewer.
But not yet. Hookups aren’t mandatory. And given that it will cost $6,000 to $7,000 to do so, plus an $80 monthly service fee, there’s no stampede.
Bonner said the peat septic system he installed five years ago works “flawlessly.”
The $300,000 earmark for the DNR restroom comes from motorboat gas taxes, watercraft licenses and fines. The restroom could cost less than that, a DNR official said.
The million-dollar sewer pipe will be paid by $3 million the Crane Lake Water and Sanitary District received from a state grant, a bonding bill appropriation and a one-time distribution of $689,500 in excess taconite taxes from a special account that St. Louis County runs. The remaining $2 million will address faulty septic systems in Crane Lake’s East Bay area and on Bear Island, where Dill lives.
Dill said that if the inspections underway find his system needs fixing, public money would pay for at least part of it. That is true for any Crane Lake resident, he said.
It’s all part of a regional plan by a joint powers board of Koochiching and St. Louis counties to sewer up private land bordering Voyageurs National Park.
With the help of lobbyist Gary Cerkvenik, the board has scored more than $8 million in public funds so far, mostly through a special appropriation from the state bonding bill.
“It’s clear there is a significant problem in the four access areas to the park where there’s pollution from runoff of failing and malfunctioning systems,” said Cerkvenik, who has consulting and lobbying contracts with several Range entities.
The joint powers board, Crane Lake’s sewer district and engineering firm Short Elliott Hendrickson Inc. together paid Cerkvenik about $40,000 last year. Short Elliott Hendrickson did the wastewater study that Cerkvenik said showed the need for the regional sewer project. Now the engineering firm has design contracts for parts of it, including Crane Lake.
There are no definitive studies of failing septic systems or human waste in Voyageurs, although park superintendent Mike Ward said “we have to respect the fact that there are most likely septic tanks that are failing and leaching into the water of Voyageurs National Park.”
The 2010 wastewater study by Short Elliott Hendrickson estimated that 64 percent of the 755 septic systems in key areas bordering Voyageurs may not be functioning properly.
The study was based on property records and other data, not actual inspections. Inspections of the septic systems in question in Crane Lake started this spring but have been delayed. Heger, at the University of Minnesota, said starting construction before the inspections is “backwards.”
Nevertheless, crews began digging dirt earlier this month. The sewer pipe is supposed to be finished this summer. The DNR restroom, however, won’t start flushing for at least another year.