Options include piping sewage to Pelican Rapids or Detroit Lakes city systems

By Louis Hoglund

Wastewater treatment dominated the discussion at an annual Pelican Lake meeting, as the Lake Improvement District board pondered plans ranging from $50 to nearly $100 million. 

More than 70 percent of the individual septic systems around the lake are believed to be insufficiently maintained—with an estimated 15 percent potentially polluting the lake. 

Solutions ranged from pumping wastewater to Pelican Rapids or Detroit Lakes—at $55-$56 million—to building a stand-alone Pelican Lake treatment plant, at up to $85 million. 

Results of the $100,000 study were outlined at the Pelican Group of Lakes Improvement District meeting on August 12 at Dunn Township Hall. About 60 Pelican Lake property owners were in attendance. 

A centralized water system, at an estimated cost of nearly $40 million, was also proposed in the study.

A combined wastewater treatment and water system for Pelican Lake is estimated at $120 million.

Bottom line for the approximate 1,100 parcel owners around the Pelican chain of lakes? 


Assuming Pelican Lake qualified for grant funding of up to 50 percent of the project, the cost to each property owner: $54,545. Based on a 30-year, 2.5 percent interest loan—the annual payment per property owner would be $2,606.

Assuming 80 percent grant funding, through some combination of federal and state programs, the annual cost to property owners would be about $1,042. 

As expensive as it appears, the average cost of replacing an on-site septic system today is $40,000 to $50,000.

At the pace of exploring grant funding, it could take two to three years to secure grants. Construction could also be a two to three-year process. So, the earliest a project of this scope and magnitude could begin is five years from now. 

All of the numbers are very preliminary, emphasized Richard Parr, project manager for SEH Engineering. He presented the study information at the August 12 meeting. 

The PGOLID board voted to allocate another $20,000, instructing SEH engineering to begin investigating grant sources. 

Discussion of wastewater issues was wide and varied at the annual meeting. Following are a few paraphrased excerpts from the wastewater discussion. 

  • Otter Tail County was the focus of numerous critical comments. Property owners questioned the county’s lack of ongoing recording and inventory of septic system data. Further, the lack of inspection and enforcement—which is mostly completed only at the time a property transfers ownership. 
  • It was suggested that septic system pumping and inspections be tracked and filed with property tax records. 
  • The last round of lakewide inspections was a three-year process to get all around the lake, from 2007-2009. 
  • Lakeshore owners with conforming, non-polluting systems are being penalized, while some systems that are 60 years old are not being upgraded. 
  • For its part, Otter Tail County does not have the resources for a continuous inspection-enforcement operation. With more than 1,000 lakes—the most of any county in the state—the financial strain would over-burden the county budget. 
  • Pelican Lake is perhaps the single largest source of tax revenue in Otter Tail County, because of high-valued lakeshore properties. Several owners contended that Otter Tail County should be more responsive to Pelican Lake’s environmental challenges. 
  • The property values around the Pelican chain are dependent on water quality.
  • Regional politics may be an indirect factor, because an estimated 20 percent of Pelican Lake property owners actually live full-time and vote in Otter Tail County. The remaining owners are seasonal, non-voting residents. There are as few as 200 voters around Pelican Lake—while a city like Fergus Falls alone has thousands of voting residents. 
  • Though only hypothetical, it was suggested that the only firm way for Pelican Lake to control and direct its destiny is to incorporate as a city. The process alone would be daunting, but it would ensure that the lake calls its own shots on wastewater treatment. 
  • Half of the lake’s on-site septic systems were installed 30 years ago—all of them nearing the typical life expectancy.
  • There are an estimated 377 holding tanks around the lake, which hold wastewater with no on-site drainfield, and must be frequently pumped. Forty years is the life expectancy of a holding tank.