SepticSmart: Can Michigan Move from Last to First?

The Great Lakes State must protect water and human health from untreated sewage

Editor’s note: During SepticSmart Week, which runs through Friday, FLOW is sharing updates on efforts to protect fresh water and public health from uncontrolled septic system waste, as part of an annual educational campaign that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a decade ago, with the State of Michigan, other states, communities, and organizations, including FLOW, as partners and participants. (If you are unsure about what a septic system is or how it works, start here).

Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for the latest articles, videos, and fact sheets. In case you missed it, here is additional coverage this week from FLOW.

For a long time, Michigan was regarded as an environmental leader among the states.  We were the first state to ban the pesticide DDT, the first in the Great Lakes region to limit phosphorus pollution to protect sensitive waters like Lake Erie, and the first to create a trust fund from oil and gas revenues to buy public recreational and scenic land.

But there’s a big gap in Michigan’s body of environmental law.

We are the only state without a sanitary code that applies to septic systems—despite knowing that pollution from failing septic systems is detected in scores of rivers and lakes across Michigan.

Click here to learn how a conventional septic system works. (Click image to see larger version).

The link is clear, said microbiologist Dr. Joan Rose of Michigan State University. She led a study that sampled 64 river systems that drain approximately 84 percent of the Lower Peninsula, looking for E. coli and the human-specific source tracking marker bacteria called B-theta.

The results were clear, Rose said. “The more septic systems in the watershed, the more human fecal source tracking bacteria in the water. If we want to keep E. coli and other pathogens out of our waterways, we need to address the problem of septic systems that may be failing to adequately treat our wastewater.”

Closing the gap should be an urgent priority for Michigan policymakers. State law needs to require periodic pumping and inspection of septic systems and replacement of those found to be failing.

But Michigan shouldn’t be satisfied with a law that does just the basics. We should add money to a new state low-interest loan program assisting homeowners with the cost of replacing those failing systems. And we should bump up public education so that more Michigan residents know about the problem and solutions.

If we’re going to be an environmental leader again, we can no longer refrain from sanitary code legislation.

Learn More about Why Michigan Must Move from Last to First on Control of Septic Waste

Here is today’s SepticSmart guidance from NatureChange, FLOW, and partners: 

Michigan’s Lack of Septic Maintenance Requirements Threatens Public Health (One-minute trailer)

Flushing the Future-The Challenge of Failing Septic Systems (16-minute video)


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The Great Lakes State must protect water and human health from untreated sewage