By TIM CLARK, guest columnist
On March 10, 2020, Ethel Morgan of HomeTown Engineering LLC presented the findings from a regionalization study of wastewater treatment options for the Helmsburg, Bean Blossom, Trevlac and Lake Lemon areas. This study was funded by an Indiana Finance Authority, Regional Assistance Program (RAP) grant. This grant was supported by the director of the State Revolving Fund (SRF), as well as by the Helmsburg and Bean Blossom Regional Sewer District (RSD) boards.
A summary of the RAP study was provided in the Brown County Democrat on Feb. 25, 2020: “The Bean Blossom-Helmsburg sewer regionalization report is out. Here’s what it said.”
The purpose of the RAP study was to provide findings and “not” recommendations. Ms. Morgan stated that it “appears” that a one-plant solution for the area was not the best option. The study indicated that two plants might be needed to serve the area. Options could include a plant in Bean Blossom and in the Trevlac area. A plant in Trevlac could serve Lake Lemon and Helmsburg with the potential of lowering the monthly costs for Helmsburg residents.
Following this meeting, the Brown County Regional Sewer District (BCRSD) Board conducted its monthly meeting. At this meeting, they selected a contractor, Lochmueller Group, to conduct a countywide wastewater treatment infrastructure strategic planning study that is expected to take 14 months to complete. This study will provide additional information. It will include numerous public meetings and, along with the RAP study, can result in the additional analysis needed to arrive at the best wastewater treatment decisions for the county.
Also, at the BCRSD meeting, there was a presentation from the Lake Lemon Environmental Cooperative. The aim of this nonprofit group is to lead efforts to acquire sewer service for their fellow residents. This could be accomplished through a separate regional sewer district (RSD) or in cooperation with the BCRSD. The cooperative identified their needs and desire for immediate sewer service. They self-funded a concept plan, and have identified that when there are substantial rains, water levels can rise to the point where they can have over 200 flooded and failed septic systems. When these systems fail, they also contribute to the contamination of Lake Lemon. They have obtained support from Monroe County which owns Lake Lemon, supports the project and will provide the needed land for a plant(s). The cooperative also has the support of its community.
Regarding the number of potential customers — referred to in the RAP study as equivalent dwelling units (EDUs) — the number of EDUs that could be served by a plant in the Trevlac area would be 353 for Lake Lemon and 132 for Helmsburg for a total of 485. The number of Bean Blossom EDUs is estimated at only 276. The RAP study included projections of a declining population in Brown County. With fewer potential customers, the selection of technologies and life-cycle management costs of wastewater systems are significant considerations.
In contrast, regarding a plant in Bean Blossom, the county commissioners, the current as well as the past two presidents of the BCRSD Board, have all stated that there is no documented evidence of failed residential septic systems in the Bean Blossom area. Further, current water sampling has not validated indications of human-caused contamination. This information undermines the premise that was used to justify a countywide RSD. The allegation by a county commissioner in 2013 was that a countywide RSD and a septic systems management plan was needed to address an “environmental catastrophe” in Bean Blossom — an assertion that has still not been supported with evidence.
The RAP study also suggests that a decentralized approach versus a countywide RSD may be warranted. The infrastructure study could be expanded to include an analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of a local Trevlac and Bean Blossom RSD, as opposed to a countywide RSD. Board members of the BCRSD are appointed by the commissioners and county council. The Gnaw Bone RSD Board will be elected by their ratepayers starting in 2020 and the Helmsburg RSD has requested this same option.
Regarding economic and wastewater treatment related plans and strategies, these could be integrated within the county comprehensive plan and updated to reflect a choice for local control as an option for growth and development. The Helmsburg Revitalization Initiative provides a working example of this approach.
Despite the information presented in the RAP study and information provided by Lake Lemon residents, the BCRSD Board reinforced their intent to move forward with the Bean Blossom project as the highest priority in the county. The BCRSD also intends to pursue the acquisition of land from parks and recreation. The fact that current landowners in the Bean Blossom area were not interested in selling property for a sewer plant does not bode well for the BCRSD’s ability to obtain the estimated 190 required easement agreements from current landowners.
The Helmsburg and Brown County RSDs’ support for the RAP study and the BCRSD leadership in obtaining a grant for a countywide wastewater infrastructure study is commendable. However, the Bean Blossom project should be delayed until there is a more comprehensive analysis that identifies the best development and wastewater treatment decisions for the county.
Tim J. Clark is an admin for the Facebook group Brown County Matters. He is a quality improvement practitioner, educator and author who specializes in the public sector. He is a senior member of the American Society for Quality and has master’s degrees in strategic studies and public administration. He serves as a volunteer with the Brown County Leader Network.