Waste water concerns and its impact to the Iowa Great Lakes go back to the early 1900’s. At the turn of the Century the population of Dickinson County was estimated at around 8,000 people (1900 US Census). The majority of the population lived in Spirit Lake, Okoboji, Arnolds Park and Milford. One of the earliest discussions of waste water issues was a 1906 Okoboji Protective Association bulletin that states “Sewage disposal and the best methods to prevent the contamination of West Okoboji Lake were the major concerns discussed at the first meeting of the OPA in 1906 (Parsons, 1988, The History of the Iowa Great Lakes Region). With a growing population, sanitation became a concern for the Iowa Great Lakes. Sewage treatment plants were established in Spirit Lake and Arnolds Park in the early 1900’s. The Spirit Lake treatment plant was located near the current drinking water facility and emptied its water into East Okoboji Lake at the north end of Gilbert Park. The Arnolds Park treatment plant was found at the current Minnewashta camp ground near the Okoboji Cemetery and its treated waste water emptied into Minnewashta Lake.
By 1915, algae blooms became more and more of an issue around the lakes. Many people around the lakes were complaining of the area smelling like a slaughter house due to the sewage and algae in all of the lakes. Initially people tried to fix the algae problem by treating the algae with chemicals. Professors from Iowa Lakeside Laboratory wanted to fix the source of the algae, by removing sewage and garbage from the lakes. Several documents printed explained to property owners how to install proper earth toilets (out houses) and chemicals that could be used to disinfect the waste in the earth toilets. Prior to the sewer system going in many properties and resorts had earthen toilets or poorly designed septic systems for waste water management. Many such systems were generally connected directly by pipes to the nearest lake. A good rain could help flush these areas clean with the waste water going into the lake system, where property owners and visitors would swim or collect drinking water.
More concern arose with rumored spread of a typhoid fever epidemic. This lead to a loss of visitors to one of Iowa’s largest tourist areas and local community leaders took this issue up with the State Legislature. The Iowa Legislature, once educated about the issues, funded a Sanitary Survey of Iowa’s Lakes to be done by the Iowa Department of Health. This study completed in 1927 was done for West and East Okoboji, Spirit Lake and Clear Lake. One of the main people who fostered this study to be completed was Dr. F.J. Smith. Dr. Smith worked with the legislature to get the study completed, but passed away before seeing a sewer system installed around the lakes.
The 1927 Department of Health report found extensive issues with sanitation around the lakes area. The survey showed the City of Okoboji has 308 cottages, 29 homes and 15 other buildings. Of the 68 wells in the City of Okoboji, 48 were tested and 44 were found to be unsafe for drinking. These were all private wells. They concluded that the wells were bad due to the 62 cesspools, and septic tanks and 214 earthen toilets found within the city. In the City of West Okoboji there were 45 wells and 10 were sampled. Of the 10 wells tested, 6 were found to be unsafe for drinking. The City of West Okoboji in 1927 had 27 septic tanks and cesspools and 45 earthen toilets.
Following the Sanitation Survey of the Lakes several groups worked to educate the public concerning the impacts of poor sanitation to the lakes and to the local economy. It was in the late 1930’s that William Woodcock from Spencer and former Chairman of the State Conservation Commission worked with local municipalities to create a joint sewer collection and treatment system (Parsons, 1988, The History of the Iowa Great Lakes Region).
With support from the local communities, the State of Iowa and an approved project by the Work Progress Administration (WPA) the largest sanitary sewer project in the State of Iowa started on November of 1937 (Parsons, 1988, The History of the Iowa Great Lakes Region).
The system consisted of a sewer line that would run from the south of Big Spirit Lake through Spirit Lake, Okoboji, Arnolds Park and into a treatment plant north of Milford. The treated waste water would be discharged into Milford Creek. The new sewer line would connect to the waste water plants in Spirit Lake and Arnolds Park taking all waste water out of the lakes area to Milford Creek. Along with the new sewer line, the new treatment plant would be built that could handle the waste from the entire lakes region. This project at times had up to 750 men working on the job (Parsons, 1988,The History of the Iowa Great Lakes Region).
The workers were housed at the WPA Camp in Milford (Elston 1939, White Men Follow After”). While this project was just getting started, the City of Okoboji worked with the State of Iowa and the WPA of Iowa, to extend a sewer and a proposed water line to go up the east side of West Okoboji as an additional project.
The plans were to take the new sewer and water lines up to the Methodist Camp on the north end of West Okoboji. The new lines were installed and the new treatment plant was brought on line for the first time on November 8, 1939. The new sewer line and treatment plant were run by the Iowa Conservation Commission, (today the Iowa Department of Natural Resources).
The State of Iowa ran the waste water operations until 1950’s. New state laws allowed for the creation of a Sanitary District to be formed to help with waste water operations over multiple communities. Today those rules are found in Iowa Code Chapter 358. With this change an election was held in July of 1949 to form a Sanitary District. A sanitary sewer district was proposed and taken to the people within the proposed district for a vote. The vote was held on July 8, 1949
with seven precincts voting. The election had 939 vote in favor of establishing the district and 123 opposed. The measure was approved by 87.5% of those who voted. The state law did require that there be a board of five trustees to direct the new governing body. The law also required that two of the five seats would be appointed by the Iowa Conservation Commission. The first three people nominated for election as trustee were Herschel Hill, Russel Brady and Forrest Croxson. The three names were put on the ballot on the next general election in 1950. All three were successfully voted in as trustees.
Not all were happy with the State of Iowa leaving and a new local government taking over waste water operations. The State of Iowa transitioned the operations over to the newly formed Iowa Great Lakes Sanitary District on May 1, 1952. At the trustee meeting of April 22, 1952 the original Notice and Petition of suit made by the towns of Spirit Lake, Okoboji and Arnolds Park and numerous private citizens was presented (IGLSD Meeting Minutes 1952).
The suit was seeking to stop the Sanitary District from operation its facilities, from spending any money collected for that purpose, and to prevent the County Treasurer from turning over the money collected for those purposes to the district (IGLSD Meeting Minutes 1952).
The District fought this suit and the first step was to require the three municipalities to furnish the money to operate and run the facility until the suit was settled. District Court Judge Fred M. Hudson agreed with this and ordered the three Cities did so by May 3, 1952. An effort was also taking place to vote to disband the Sanitary District. As the Suit continued into 1953 the trustee learned in February that the County Auditor had not spread the five-mills previously levied by the board by resolution in October of 1951 mainly due to the pending litigation. The three towns were required to pay for operations while the suit continued and eventually the suit was settled by the courts and the operations were turned over to the Sanitary District on July 1, 1953.
The first Ordinances were established on September 23, 1953. The first rate established by the Iowa Great Lakes Sanitary District was 50 cents monthly base charge and 17 cents for every 1,000 gallons used. Today the rate is $5.00 a month base charge and $1.35 for every 1,000 gallons used. The bill for using 3,000 gallons of water used a month in 1953 would have been $1.01 and today over 60 years later, that bill is $9.05. With inflation calculated in to the 1953 costs, the Sanitary District rate is about 10 cents higher today then we were in 1953. Yet, the collection system is over twice the size today as it was in 1953 and treatment standards today are much higher today.
The collections system and plant operations continued to grow as development continued to grow around the Iowa Great Lakes. In 1953 the City of Milford asked to join into the Iowa Great Lakes Sanitary District. The cities current waste water treatment plant was located south of town on what is today Highway 71 on the west side of the road. The treatment plant was replaced by a lift station that is still there today. The system expanded around the south and west sides West Okoboji in the early 1950’s.
The sewer collection system finally looped West Okoboji in the early 1960’s. The Sewer system started going around Big Spirit Lake in the 1940’s and was completed in the 1970’s. The last large new sewer lines were installed around the east side of East Okoboji in 1978 through 1980.
The treatment plant originally built was an activated sludge system that went on line in 1939. In 1957 the plant added a trickle system filter, the large concrete dome that can be seen at the plant today. That trickle filter system was operational until the RBC system was brought on line in 1983. The last plant upgrade built a new activated sludge system that was completed in 2010.
The board today consists of five trustees as it was originally with one exception. In 1984 the Conservation Commission gave up its two appointed seats on the Sanitary District board through legislation. Today all five trustees are voted in by constituents of the Sanitary District. These trustees are the governing board of the Iowa Great Lakes Sanitary District and serve six year terms. The Sanitary District as of 2013 has a staff of 13 personnel. Seven staff and a Collection System Superintendent oversee the 100 plus miles of pipes and 64 lift station operations. There are two staff and a Plant Operations Superintendent that oversee the plant operations and run labs to verify water quality and functionality of the plant. There is one office manager and a District Superintendent.