Photo: A lack of septic regulations can lead to waste in our treasured waters. You wouldn’t “do it in the river,” would you?
By Dave Dempsey
Michigan prides itself on being an environmental leader, particularly in curbing water pollution. But in one area of water policy, Michigan is dead last among the 50 states. It is the only state that lacks a uniform sanitary code requiring periodic inspection and maintenance of septic systems—even though 30% of Michiganders rely on such systems.
The results are devastating to Michigan surface water and groundwater. An estimated 130,000 septic systems in the state are failing, releasing 5.2 billion gallons of sewage annually into Michigan waters. Numerous Michigan rivers and lakes have detectable levels of fecal bacteria. Groundwater, too, is contaminated by septic wastes. And conventional household waste isn’t the only thing polluting our waters. Emerging contaminants like pharmaceutical residues and endocrine disruptors are also found in household wastes. Little monitoring is done to identify these substances in groundwater.
A typical septic system consists of a septic tank and a drainfield, or soil absorption field. The septic tank digests organic matter and separates floatable matter (oils and grease) and solids from the wastewater. Soil-based systems discharge the liquid (known as effluent) from the septic tank into a series of perforated pipes buried in a leach field, chambers, or other special units designed to slowly release the effluent into the soil.
If well maintained, septic systems can handle household liquid wastes effectively. Unfortunately, many homeowners with septic systems are either unaware of, or unable or unwilling to assure, proper maintenance through pumping and replacement when they fail.
Given the lack of a statewide requirement, some counties and municipalities have adopted local ordinances that generally require inspections of septic systems when property changes hands. Such an ordinance in the Barry-Eaton County health district found 2,566 sites with sewage system failures out of 9,443 sewage system evaluations.
Under pressure from special interests, some local governments are now backing off protecting water resources from failing septic systems. The Barry-Eaton ordinance has been repealed, and Kalkaska County is considering repealing its time-of-sale requirement for septic inspection.
FLOW finds such pollution, and the lack of a state law addressing it, unacceptable. State legislation to curb this source of water pollution is needed. The Michigan Legislature came close to enacting a law in 2018, but last-minute changes weakening the bill prevented its passage.
If you are concerned about failing septic systems polluting our waters, contact your state representative and senator and ask them to support a statewide law requiring proper maintenance—and keeping this waste out of our waters.