Tag: Dave Dempsey

FLOW’s Jim Olson and Dave Dempsey Honored by IAGLR for Great Lakes Protection Efforts

Photo: FLOW’s Jim Olson (left) and Dave Dempsey.


Note: This is a FLOW media release issued June 21, 2022. Members of the media can reach FLOW’s:

  • Jim Olson, Founder & Senior Legal Advisor at Jim@FLOWforWater.org.
  • Dave Dempsey, Senior Policy Advisor, Dave@FLOWforWater.org.
  • Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director, at Liz@FLOWforWater.org or cell (570) 872-4956 or office (231) 944-1568.

Traverse City, Mich.— FLOW’s Founder and Senior Legal Advisor Jim Olson and Senior Policy Advisor Dave Dempsey on June 15, 2022, were awarded prestigious honors for their career-long efforts to protect the waters of the Great Lakes and the environment and to educate and build support among the public and decision makers.

The awards were bestowed during an online ceremony by the International Association for Great Lakes Research (IAGLR).

IAGLR is a scientific organization made up of researchers studying the Laurentian Great Lakes, other large lakes of the world, and their watersheds, as well as those with an interest in that research. The new award recognizes and honors individuals whose work has made significant contributions to sharing the social, economic, and ecological understanding of the large lakes of the world. The complete list of those honored at the IAGLR Awards Ceremony is here.

Jim Olson, FLOW’s founder and senior legal advisor, received one of the inaugural Large Lake Champion Awards for his “tireless efforts in protecting the environment in and around the Laurentian Great Lakes region, including his founding of the organization For Love of Water (FLOW).” 

​In announcing the award, IAGLR Awards Committee Co-Chair Neil Rooney expressed “appreciation for Jim’s extraordinary knowledge of environmental, water, and public interest law, and how he has used his skill set to advocate for the protection of these unique and essential ecosystems.” The complete list of Large Lake Champions is here.

Olson received the news with the same humility he has brought to his decades of work protecting the public waters of the Great Lakes—at the surface, in the ground, and from the tap.

“This caught me by complete surprise,” Jim Olson said. “So many dedicated people around our Great Lakes are deserving of this honor. I receive it in recognition of the many clients, organizations, people I’ve worked with over the years, especially the inspiring staff, Board, and supporters of For Love of Water. This is as much theirs as it is mine.”

“Thank  you, IAGLR, for this award,” Olson said. “Over the years, it has been those scientists within our Great Lakes region who have spent their lives in search of the truth of the mysteries and graces of our natural world—ultimately, the measure of how well or not we humans inhabit it—who have made a difference.”

IAGLR honored Dave Dempsey, FLOW’s senior policy advisor, with its John R. (Jack) Vallentyne Award, which recognizes “significant efforts to inform and educate the public and policymakers on large lakes issues to raise awareness and support for their protection and restoration.” The award is named for long-time IAGLR member and environmental scientist and educator, John R. (Jack) Vallentyne.

“Dave Dempsey is an unmatched Great Lakes resource,” wrote Lana Pollack, former US Section Chair of the International Joint Commission, in her letter nominating Dempsey for the award. “Deeply curious and wholly identified with the Great Lakes, he has devoted his life to understanding and helping others understand the Basin. An innately generous person, for decades Dave has stepped up to inform and assist colleagues, resource managers, legislators, reporters, educators, environmental advocates, business and labor interests, and of course countless students—all of them seeking well-founded information on a myriad of resource management and environmental policy issues.”

“He is not only a talented and well-respected policy advisor, but a gifted author and storyteller,” notes John Hartig, Visiting Scholar at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor, in his nomination letter. “His writing is a unique blend of his 30-year career shaping Great Lakes policy and his passion for inspiring a stewardship ethic for our inland seas.”

In receiving the award, Dave Dempsey said, “I’m very humbled by this award for two reasons. First that it comes from IAGLR, which I have great respect for. And I’m also humbled because to have my name associated with Jack Vallentyne in any way is a remarkable thing.” 

Dempsey recalled speaking with Vallentyne when doing research. “He impressed me not only as one of the fathers of the ecosystem approach to Great Lakes management, but he also was a very effective educator of young people. I think that’s what we all need to be.”

FLOW Executive Director Elizabeth Kirkwood called Olson’s Large Lake Champion Award “a richly deserved recognition of a career spent defending the Great Lakes and educating thousands of people across the continent on the importance of these precious fresh waters and the rights of the public to protect these waters under a legal principle known as the public trust doctrine. Everyone at FLOW is proud to be associated with Jim.”

“Dave Dempsey’s encyclopedic knowledge, clarity of conscience of what is good and right, reasoned voice, and gifted ability to speak and write in sparring, well-chosen words about the environmental history of, and policies related to, the Great Lakes are remarkable,” said Kirkwood. “It is the reason why lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, citizens, resource managers, business leaders, journalists, and lawyers have sought Dave’s advice for over three decades.” 

“Dave’s contributions to the protection of the Great Lakes are abundantly clear, and I can think of no other more deserving of such an honor as the Vallentyne Award than Dave Dempsey,” Kirkwood said.

Our Drinking Water Lacks the Protection It Deserves

Acclaimed author and FLOW Senior Advisor Dave Dempsey stands on the shore of Lake Michigan’s West Grand Traverse Bay.


Editor’s note: This opinion article was originally published on April 2, 2022, in the Lansing State Journal.

By Dave Dempsey

A natural resource on which nearly half the population of Michigan depends every day is one that most of us rarely think about: Groundwater, and it’s especially critical in mid-Michigan. The tri-county area depends almost exclusively on groundwater as a drinking water source—both from public wells managed by the Lansing Board of Water and Light and the City of East Lansing, and thousands of private wells in outlying areas.

Some 45 percent of Michigan’s population gets drinking water from underground, but because it is out of sight it is often out of mind. Its invisible nature has made groundwater vulnerable to neglect and mismanagement. Michigan is pocked with more than 14,000 groundwater contamination sites, including one of the nation’s largest, a 13 trillion-gallon plume contaminated by the toxic chemical TCE (trichloroethylene). Due to funding limitations, the state is addressing only two percent of these polluted sites this year.

Groundwater is vital globally, too. The salty oceans are not drinkable and constitute approximately 97 percent of all the world’s water. About two percent of all water is fresh water frozen at the poles or in glaciers. Of the remaining one percent, almost all of it is groundwater, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

If Michigan’s groundwater were visible, it would be hard to miss. If combined, all the groundwater in the Great Lakes Basin is approximately equal in volume to Lake Huron—a sixth Great Lake of sorts.

But groundwater is not an underground pool. Instead, it fills the pores and fractures in underground materials such as sand, gravel and other rock—much the same way that water fills a sponge. And it lacks the protection it deserves.

Although 1.25 million private water wells supply drinking water to more than two million Michiganders, there is no regular safety testing of that water. Thousands of these wells are contaminated with nitrates. Michigan is the last holdout among the 50 states in protecting groundwater and public health from 130,000 failing septic systems that discharge human waste.

My organization, For Love of Water, is a nonprofit law and policy center based in Traverse City. Last month we sponsored a webinar on Michigan’s groundwater challenges and opportunities on World Water Day, where scientists and public officials spoke of the urgent need to educate Michiganders about the importance of groundwater.

Learning about groundwater is the necessary first step toward action, and protective action is what Michigan needs to safeguard its groundwater for current and future generations.

Dave Dempsey is senior advisor at FLOW (For Love of Water), a Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City. He is the author of several books on Michigan’s environment. Learn more about FLOW’s groundwater-protection program, including our latest report and fact sheet.

What’s Your Favorite Great Lake?

An informal poll of Great Lakes lovers gave a clear victory to Lake Superior. It holds as much water as the other four Great Lakes combined (plus three Lake Eries), has 2,726 miles of shoreline, and has a turnover time of 173 years. In the words of one respondent to a recent informal survey, “Every time I look at it I am convinced I am at the edge of the world.”

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey

With the Winter Solstice and the darkest day of the year behind us, it’s time for a little light.

I recently posted a survey on both Twitter and Facebook asking followers and friends to name their favorite Great Lake and to explain their allegiance. The answers were both quantitative and qualitative.

The quantitative results came from a Twitter poll. Because Twitter offers only four options for a poll, I chose to leave out Lake Ontario but invited voters with allegiance to that lake to make comments about it. That didn’t satisfy Ontariophiles, who felt slighted and said so. Here are the results for the remaining Great Lakes, out of 571 votes cast:

Superior, 47.3%

Erie, 22.6%

Michigan, 17%

Huron, 13.1%

Such polls are grossly unscientific, but it was nevertheless a surprise that Erie topped Michigan in the voting.

The qualitative results reflect respondents’ insights. Dr. Nancy Langston, a distinguished professor of environmental history at Michigan Technological University and author of Sustaining Lake Superior and the just-released Climate Ghosts, offered a simple explanation for her vote: “Why? Because it is superior!”

Jeff Padden, a former Michigan legislator whose 10-year voting record expressed his strong environmental values, stands up for Erie. “At least for today, it is my favorite. It could be named Lake Lazarus, since it came back from the dead. Its resurrection is vivid proof that public policy matters.”

David Ruck, founder of Great Lakes Outreach Media and creator of the new documentary The Erie Situation, chooses Lake Michigan. “I grew up next to it and it has taught me as much as any education about the world, possibilities, using my imagination, and love.”

Katie Wolf vouches for Huron “for its miles of undeveloped shoreline and natural, wild beauty. The abundance of historical maritime treasures both along the shores and underwater offer a lifetime of mysteries to explore, research and photograph. Sunrises and sunsets from the Presque Isle Peninsula are spectacular, too.”

 As I mentioned, Lake Ontario has its adherents, too. Sharon Cottle wrote, “Lake Ontario for me. I have lived all my life within a couple of miles of her. Don’t mess with her when she gets mad, yet she can look like an infinity pool at times. Love the others too.”

And by “the others,” could we also mean Lake St. Clair? My colleague Diane Dupuis argues, “My favorite has to be Lake St. Clair, the essential yet perpetually omitted “pretty darn great” lake whose absence would mean quite a portage for Great Lakes freighters laden to the Plimsoll line. Lake St. Clair is born out of the world’s largest freshwater delta: unique by definition. By square feet it ranks #15 in the country, but by recognition it ranks zero in the Great Lakes Basin.”

It was Tony Infante who had, in my mind, the correct answer (although they’re all correct to someone). “Is this a trick question? It’s easy: Huron-Michigan, actually two Great Lakes, make one Grand Lake.”

That’s right. The one Great Lake that gets no respect is Lake Huron-Michigan (or Michigan-Huron).

When North Americans are asked to identify the largest lake in the world, many of them single out Lake Superior. But they’re wrong. Russia’s Lake Baikal is the largest by volume. Lake Michigan-Huron is the largest by surface area at 45,300 square miles. Superior is a mere 31,700 square miles and Baikal, a mere 12,248.

Why isn’t Lake Huron-Michigan widely recognized by the public? It has a single water level. But nature has designed it in such a way as to fool the human mind. Linked only by a five-mile strait, the Michigan lobe and the Huron lobe resemble fraternal twins. One is dotted by large cities, and heavily industrialized at one end. The watershed of the other is lightly populated, and the lake/lobe has been all but forgotten.

The converse of the above is the remarkable diversity of Lake Michigan-Huron. Sandy and stony shores, majestic cities and legally designated wilderness, sturgeon and salmon, the hush of the north and the anxious intensity of the Midwest, the maple leaf and the Stars and Stripes. There is no other lake close to it in all the world.

That’s mine. What’s your favorite Great Lake?

Does Environmental History Become Environmental Prophecy?

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey

When a book of history you’ve written becomes history itself, this not only makes you feel old, but also gives you a chance, in hindsight, to see how accurate it is.

Twenty years ago, in 2001, the University of Michigan Press published Ruin and Recovery: Michigan’s Rise as a Conservation Leader. It was a book I’d long wanted to write. Based on 20 prior years of learning the environmental history of Michigan on the job, I attempted to put in perspective the good and bad in the state’s management of its natural resources.

Despite the catastrophes marking Michigan’s environmental history, I intended the book to capture a stirring story of citizen action to rebuild and protect the air, water, forests, fish and wildlife–and human health–since Michigan became a state in 1837. I was fortunate that the book received a generally warm welcome.

But now it’s time to look back. Although I’m pleased with much of Ruin and Recovery, I also see its flaws. They’re considerable. Here are a few; the book was:

  • Intended to cover Michigan’s environmental history as a state, but in doing so it said virtually nothing about the people who lived here for approximately 10,000 years before that. How did they live in relation to the landscape and waterscape? How did their ways and practices affect these peninsulas?
  • At 368 pages, too long for many readers.
  • Simplistic in its faith that Michigan would become a conservation leader among the states again.

This faith was founded on the finding that Michigan had lived through several cycles of destruction and healing. First, rapacious logging companies stripped Michigan of its white pine, and market hunting and fishing devoured wildlife and aquatic life.

Then citizens organized and successfully pressured state legislators to create forest reserves and commit to a plan of sustainable harvest. They also compelled legislators to enact legislation establishing harvesting seasons and rules.

Similarly, when pollution blackened the sky and poisoned the water, it was citizens who clamored for the cleanup laws that distinguished Michigan among the 50 states.

I projected that this would happen again as new challenges occurred, including urban sprawl, climate change, and new forms of air and water pollution.

So far, I’ve been wrong. Not because of lack of concern among Michigan’s residents, but because of a political culture resistant to–and designed to be resistant to–the wishes and forces of the public. And also because of social changes that limit the amount of volunteer and advocacy time available to the public.

Some readers have even joked darkly that the book should be renamed Ruin and Recovery and Ruin Again. I can’t go that far, or anywhere near it.

I still take heart from examples of Michigan’s past.

Charles Garfield, a Grand Rapids banker, for 20 years in the late 1800s and early 1900s advocated that the state create a public forest system to replace cutover, fire-charred acres of Northern Michigan. Today, the Department of Natural Resources manages 3.9 million acres of state forests.

Genevieve Gillette, a landscape architect, spent 50 years of her life from the 1920s as a volunteer champion of building Michigan’s state park system. Her work contributed to everything from Tahquamenon Falls State Park to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Today, there are 306,000 acres of state parks and recreation areas.

Joan Wolfe, a citizen advocate living in Belmont, organized and led a coalition of interests that overcame polluter resistance to win state legislative approval of the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) in 1970. Today, MEPA stands tall as a landmark law empowering the public.

As Joan said in summarizing the work to enact MEPA, “To me the greatest lesson is: ‘None of us is as smart as all of us,’ and ’Nothing we do can be accomplished alone.’”

There is no time to fall back on cynicism. And there is no purpose in apathy. Michigan’s environmental challenges are too great. The impulse for environmental recovery in Michigan has always begun with its public. Today, it must again.

If it does, 20 years from now an environmental historian can write Ruin and Renewal: Michigan’s People Rise Again.

Water Connects Us to Everything That’s Alive: FLOW Inspires Us to Protect It

“Our bodies are mostly water. Water connects us to everything around us that is alive,” says award-winning poet Alison Swan. “The water and the land are inseparable from one another. Stop and think to yourself: How does what’s happening to the land around this water impact the water supply of essentially the world? Because water flows all over the surface and below the surface of earth.”

Throughout 2021, FLOW is developing and sharing a series of video interviews with key supporters and stakeholders who have been instrumental to our work and shared successes over the past decade. We hope you enjoy theses stories and reflections and share them with others who might be inspired to join us in protecting freshwater for all.

Watch a video of Alison Swan below.

“FLOW is really good at inspiring. Dave Dempsey is a master of inspiration,” adds Alison, who references an inscription that Dave, FLOW’s senior policy advisor, wrote 20 years ago in her copy of his book Ruin & Recovery. “I hope you always love and care for the majesty of the dunes, the lake, and all the creatures,” Dave wrote to Alison’s daughter Sophie, who was then 2 years old. “I’m glad you have parents who know the importance of these timeless things.”

“I really can’t think of a better person than Dave Dempsey to fight on behalf of the Great Lakes and the Sixth Great Lake (the groundwater under our feet).”

Introducing the Olson-Dempsey Fund for Public Trust in the Great Lakes

FLOW is welcoming donations here to the newly launched Olson-Dempsey Fund.

A true watershed moment: As FLOW in 2021 marks our first 10 years of groundbreaking work on behalf of public trust rights and responsibilities in the Great Lakes, we honor two of the most ardent champions of public water and most inspiring leaders in the Great Lakes watershed. To ignite FLOW’s next 10 years of forward thinking and momentum, as exemplified by Jim Olson and Dave Dempsey, FLOW and our community of local, regional, and international partners are recognizing, honoring, and ensuring the continuing influence of these two visionary leaders to protect public water in the Great Lakes Basin. 

FLOW Founder & Senior Legal Advisor Jim Olson

For nearly 50 years Jim Olson, FLOW’s founder and senior legal advisor, has been an ardent and effective environmental, water, and public interest law advocate and champion. He has developed a deep knowledge and understanding of public trust principles and law as they apply to the systemic threats facing the Great Lakes Basin. Jim is a graduate of Michigan State College of Law (Detroit College of Law) and has an L.L.M. Degree in public lands, natural resources, and environmental law from the University of Michigan Law School. He received the Champion of Justice Award in 2010, one of the highest honors of the Michigan Bar Association, and was named a Michigan Lawyer of the Year in 1998 for his work on environmental and water citizen suit laws. Jim has lectured in Brazil, Canada, and the United States, and has written numerous articles and essays and three books. He was featured in two eminent documentary films on water, “FLOW: For Love of Water” (2008) and “Blue Gold” (2008).

Watch FLOW’s video homage to Jim Olson below:

FLOW Senior Policy Advisor Dave Dempsey, with long-time friend and colleague Lana Pollack

FLOW senior advisor Dave Dempsey has 40 years’ experience in environmental policy. He served as environmental advisor to former Michigan Governor James Blanchard and as policy advisor on the staff of the International Joint Commission. He has also provided policy support to the Michigan Environmental Council and Clean Water Action. He has written dozens of books on the Great Lakes and water protection. Dave has a bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University and a master’s degree in environmental policy and law from Michigan State University. He has served as an adjunct instructor in environmental policy at both universities.

Watch FLOW’s video homage to Dave Dempsey below:

Central to ensuring the ongoing impact of Jim’s and Dave’s achievements is the establishment of a special fund dedicated to securing the legacy of their leadership and the deepening influence of the public trust doctrine in environmental public policy. Gifts to the Olson-Dempsey Fund will support FLOW’s ongoing mission to educate about the power of public trust law, underscoring the rights and responsibilities of the public and public officials. By underwriting public presentations, communications initiatives, and engagement activities, the Fund will shine a light on the power of the public trust to inform law and science-based policy protecting the Great Lakes and will help to expand and sustain the application of the public trust doctrine as a key legal and policy instrument to protect the waters of the Great Lakes Basin.

FLOW publicly announced the Olson-Dempsey Fund on September 21, 2021, at our 10th anniversary celebration. Donors may add to the Fund through gifts and grants of all levels. Multi-year pledges and structured/planned gifts are welcome. Contact Diane Dupuis at diane@flowforwater.org with questions about giving, or visit our online donation portal to make a gift now. 

FLOW and the residents of the Great Lakes Basin are forever indebted to the brilliance, dedication, and relentless efforts that Jim Olson and Dave Dempsey have made on behalf of public water, the public trust doctrine, and the well-being of future generations who will call the Great Lakes home.

FLOW Celebrates 10 Years, Honors Jim Olson and Dave Dempsey

Traverse City, Mich.—FLOW is celebrating our 10th anniversary of keeping the Great Lakes public and protected and kickstarting the next 10 years.

Founded in 2011 by Jim Olson and directed since 2012 by Liz Kirkwood, both environmental attorneys, FLOW is a nonprofit law and policy center based in Traverse City dedicated to protecting the Great Lakes, groundwater, and drinking water for all. Independent and nonpartisan, FLOW works with the public and decision-makers to hold the government accountable in protecting and providing access to public waters.

Notable highlights of our 10th anniversary year and celebration include:

  • Tuesday, September 21, from 7:00-8:00 pm EDT—“Confluence”—FLOW’s marquee 10th anniversary event, live-streamed and emceed by dynamic Traverse City talent Ben Whiting. Free and open to the public, the online event will include a special honor for FLOW luminaries Jim Olson and Dave Dempsey, and promises a fun and fast-paced frolic through FLOW’s history and heroes, with special guests, and prize-drawings for Patagonia gear! Register here.
  • The addition of FLOW’s first-ever full-time legal director, an achievement many years in the making. Environmental attorney Zach Welcker joined FLOW in July, after more than a decade representing Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest on water, fisheries, and other natural resource issues. Zach now carries the legal torch borne since 2011 on a part-time and volunteer basis by Jim Olson.
  • Video reflections by FLOW supporters, staff, and collaborators who have been instrumental to our work and shared successes over the past decade—meant to inspire everyone to join us in protecting freshwater for all. See the video series here.
  • Illustrated timeline of FLOW’s progress through the years in partnership with the public. See FLOW’s 10-year timeline here.
  • Webinars with FLOW staff and partners on Line 5, Great Lakes high water levels, groundwater threats, and artistic efforts to inspire the protection of freshwater. See the collection of recorded webinars here.
  • Release of a penetrating groundwater-protection reportDeep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake: Spotlighting and Solving Michigan’s Groundwater Emergency—and fact sheet authored by Dave Dempsey and conveyed via webinar. See FLOW’s groundwater program page for more.

Lana Pollack Reflects: “There Isn’t Another FLOW”

“There isn’t another FLOW. There are many worthy environmental organizations but there isn’t another FLOW,” said Lana Pollack, former U.S. Chair of the International Joint Commission. “So I think that FLOW, although it’s not a political organization, it’s a deeply education organization. That has to come first before people will understand and demand of their government representatives protection for their most magnificent home.”

Watch Lana’s testimonial below.

For 10 years, FLOW has worked to keep our water public and protected. During 2021, our 10th anniversary year, FLOW staff, supporters and collaborators are sharing reflections on what our work together has meant to them, and to the freshwaters of the Great Lakes Basin. We hope you will find their words and deeds inspiring. Read more of those reflections here.

“It’s so simple, it’s so basic, and it’s often overlooked. It’s another long-term, generational educational effort that needs total place for people to understand that governments, at any period, at any place, hold the environmental entities of their regions in trust for all generations—not there to be given away, used up, sold, contaminated, forgotten about, taken for granted.”

Editor’s Note: You can enjoy FLOW video reflections by other Great Lakes water protectors here

SepticSmart Week: Protect It and Inspect It

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

Click here to see a larger version of the SepticSmart graphic.

By Dave Dempsey

Groundwater, a critical part of Michigan’s water cycle, is out of sight—and so is the groundwater pollution that contaminates thousands of drinking water wells and reaches hundreds of rivers and lakes across the state. Despite its invisibility to the naked eye, groundwater contamination sickens Michigan residents. About 45% of the Wolverine State’s population drinks well water.

Among the biggest culprits in degrading Michigan’s groundwater are failing septic systems. Designed to treat household wastewater in areas not served by sewers and buried beneath the land surface, septic systems require proper maintenance if they are to avoid polluting groundwater. Such maintenance includes regular inspections and, when necessary, pumping out of the wastewater. But because there are no inspection and maintenance requirements in most areas of the state, an estimated 130,000 septic systems in our state are failing. That means sewage and associated microorganisms are reaching groundwater, lakes, and streams.

September 20-24 is SepticSmart Week in Michigan and nationally—an opportunity for owners of property with septic systems to learn about the threat failing systems pose to our water resources, and ways to prevent or minimize such pollution. As our allies protecting Crystal Lake in Benzie County, Michigan, point out: Being septic smart can extend the life of a septic system, keep well water safe, protect the environment and prevent accidents at home.

FLOW’s Groundbreaking Reports on Groundwater

As FLOW described in our fall 2018 report on groundwater contamination in Michigan, and a second report we released earlier this year, our state is the only one of the 50 states that lacks a statewide sanitary code requiring regular inspection and maintenance of small, mainly domestic septic systems. Because of the gap in state protections, some counties, townships, cities, and villages are enacting local ordinances in place of statewide requirements, but they are relatively few out of Michigan’s approximately 2,000 local units of government.

Septic systems are small-scale wastewater treatment options, used when a home or complex cannot easily be connected to a municipal sewer system. Raw sewage and wastewater (e.g., bath water and dishwater) are first pumped from the home into the septic tank. This is an underground, sealed, concrete tank where the household waste is treated. Here, solid waste sinks to the bottom of the tank and materials such as oil form a layer of scum on top. Bacteria in the tank break down the solid waste, while the wastewater migrates out of the septic tank and into the drain field. Perforated pipes distribute the liquid wastewater throughout the drain field. Once out of the pipes, the wastewater effluent seeps through a gravel layer, then through the soil. Both filter the wastewater before it flows into the groundwater or nearby surface water.

Leaking or malfunctioning septic systems allow organic wastewater compounds like nitrate and E. coli to percolate through the soil and enter the groundwater. Leakage and effluent runoff are also major contributors to E. coli levels in surface water. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has identified 196 rivers, lakes, and beaches with E. coli levels over the EPA limit. 

Between 2013 and 2014, an estimated 5.7 billion gallons of untreated sewage from failing septic systems were pumped into surface water in Michigan. A 2015 study headed by Dr. Joan Rose, co-director of Michigan State University’s Center for Advancing Microbial Risk Assessment and Center for Water Sciences, sampled 64 river systems that drain approximately 84 percent of the Lower Peninsula for E. coli and the human-specific source tracking marker bacteria called B-theta. The more septic systems in the watershed, the more human fecal source tracking bacteria were found in the water.

Failing septic systems have been correlated with disease. A 2003 study found that septic system densities were associated with endemic diarrheal illness in central Wisconsin. 

Septic Systems and Emerging Contaminants

Human wastes are not the only pollutants that failing septic tanks are releasing to groundwater and surface water. So-called emerging contaminants are found in household wastes, whether they discharge to publicly owned sewage systems or septic tanks. Twenty different studies on septic systems have identified 45 contaminants in septic effluent, including pharmaceuticals, personal care product ingredients, chemicals in cleaning products, flame retardants, hormones (both natural and synthetic), and other common substances such as caffeine. Septic systems are somewhat effective at removing chemicals such as acetaminophen, caffeine, and alkylphenols, a common group of ingredients used in cleaning products. But some chemicals remain largely untreated, including the carcinogenic flame retardant TCEP, an anti-epilepsy drug called carbamazepine, and the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole.

One cause of the septic system pollution problem is homeowners’ lack of awareness. A 2018 study of mid-Michigan residents likely to have septic systems, conducted by Public Sector Consultants, found:

  • Approximately 30 percent of residents did not know they have a septic system. 
  • The average age of septic systems was 28 years old. 
  • Forty-three percent of respondents indicated they had not had their system pumped within the last 5 years, and 25 percent indicated that they did not pump or maintain their system on a regular basis.
  • Only 15 percent of residents were aware of the normal lifespan of a septic system. 

Only 11 of 83 Michigan counties have ordinances that require septic tank inspection at the time property is sold. Within the first 6 years of implementing their ordinances, two Michigan counties found 1,000 failed septic tanks and 300 homes without any septic system or other wastewater treatment.

Tips for Properly Maintaining Septic Systems

Protect It and Inspect It: Homeowners should generally have their system inspected every three years by a qualified professional or according to their state or local health department’s recommendations. Tanks should be pumped when necessary, typically every three to five years.

Think at the Sink: Avoid pouring fats, grease, and solids down the drain. These substances can clog a system’s pipes and drainfield.

Don’t Overload the Commode: Only put things in the drain or toilet that belong there. For example, coffee grounds, dental floss, disposable diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products, cigarette butts, and cat litter can all clog and potentially damage septic systems.

Don’t Strain Your Drain: Be water-efficient and spread out water use. Fix plumbing leaks and install faucet aerators and water-efficient products. Spread out laundry and dishwasher loads throughout the daytoo much water at once can overload a system that hasn’t been pumped recently.

Shield Your Field: Remind guests not to park or drive on a system’s drainfield, where the vehicle’s weight could damage buried pipes or disrupt underground flow.

Pump your Tank: Routinely pumping your tank can prevent your septic system from premature failure, which can lead to groundwater contamination.

Test Your Drinking Water Well: If septic systems aren’t properly maintained, leaks can contaminate well water. Testing your drinking water well is the best way to ensure your well water is free from contaminants.

Source: Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

Dave Dempsey Reflects: “Public Trust Doctrine is Key That Can Unlock Environmental Doors For Us”

“FLOW is responsible for the major success we’ve had so far as a movement in halting the Line 5 pipeline that crosses the Straits of Mackinac,” said FLOW senior policy advisor Dave Dempsey in this testimonial about the impact we’ve had during the past decade.

During 2021, our 10th anniversary year, FLOW supporters and collaborators are sharing reflections on what our work together has meant to them and to the freshwaters of the Great Lakes Basin.

“Without the public trust doctrine that Jim Olson and Liz Kirkwood have been advocating, that pipeline would be set to operate for another 50 years, and I think we’re in a position to shut it down, thanks for FLOW’s work on this. I think of the public trust doctrine as the key that can unlock all the environmental doors for us. It can protect our water, protect our air, protect us from climate change. It’s the secret weapon.”

Watch a video below of Dave Dempsey’s testimonial: