Tag: septic code

SepticSmart: Can Michigan Move from Last to First?

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 www.ForLoveOfWater.org 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)

 

Get SepticSmart to Stop Pollution, Save Money

Image courtesy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


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. Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org 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: SepticSmart Week: Progress on Protecting Public Health and Fresh Water and SepticSmart: Leelanau County Board Wisely Votes to Protect Fresh Water and Public Health from Septic Pollution.


Michiganders who rely on septic systems to treat and discharge their sewage don’t need to wait for a state law requiring them to maintain those systems. Their voluntary acts and practices can help prevent further groundwater and surface water pollution from failing and malfunctioning septic systems, and save them money and headaches too.

Most importantly, owners of homes with septic systems should have tanks pumped and examined at least once every three years. If the inspection yields evidence of a failing system, the tank should be replaced. Replacing failing systems is expensive – but the cost of not doing so includes risking the health of the household if a drinking water well is in the path of the slowly moving waste. It also puts neighbors and recreational users of contaminated streams at risk from fecal bacteria and household chemicals.

The State of Michigan is launching a $35 million low-interest loan program to assist homeowners in defraying the cost of septic system replacement.

U.S. EPA–Top 10 Ways to be a Good Septic System Owner (Click for larger version).

Top 10 Ways to Be a Good Septic Owner

Other SepticSmart quick tips on protecting your septic system from failure:

  • Have your system inspected every three years by a qualified professional or according to your local health department’s recommendations.
  • Have your septic tank pumped, when necessary, generally every three to five years.
  • Avoid pouring harsh products (e.g., oils, grease, chemicals, paint, medications) down the drain.
  • Make efficient use of water and do not operate several water-intensive appliances at the same time. Doing otherwise can lead to a septic system backup into your house.
  • Keep the surface over a septic system drain field clear. Roots and heavy objects can disrupt the treatment of waste in the septic system.
  • For the full list of Top 10 Ways to Be a Good Septic Owner, click here or on the image.

Have your septic tank pumped, when necessary, generally every three to five years. Source: U.S. EPA. (Click for larger version).

If all homeowners with septic systems follow these tips and others, their potential bill for system replacement will be lower, and Michigan’s public waters will be cleaner.

Scientific studies have found human fecal contamination affecting 100% of our river systems in the Lower Peninsula and that substandard, failing, or nonexistent septic systems are the primary driver of human fecal bacteria found in our rivers and streams.

FLOW’s action on septic system pollution began with our 2018 groundwater report, The Sixth Great Lake, which emphasized that in addition to releasing an estimated 9.4 billion gallons of poorly or untreated sewage into the soil and environment each year, failing septic systems release household chemicals that residents pour down their drains. Our report called for a uniform statewide sanitary code in Michigan.

Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for daily updates. To get you started, here is today’s tip from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reminding all of us to Protect It and Inspect It!

 

SepticSmart: Leelanau County Board Wisely Votes to Protect Fresh Water and Public Health from Septic Pollution

Image courtesy of Leelanau.gov.


Editor’s note: This opinion article by FLOW Legal Advisor Skip Pruss was originally published in the Traverse City Record-Eagle on Sept. 4, 2022. 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. Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org 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: SepticSmart Week: Progress on Protecting Public Health and Fresh Water and Get SepticSmart to Stop Pollution, Save Money.


By Skip Pruss, FLOW Legal Advisor

In August, the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners voted to task the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department with drafting an ordinance requiring the inspection of septic systems upon the transfer or sale of a home. The bipartisan vote endorsing this ordinance came after years of rancorous debate and unsuccessful attempts at passage.

Skip Pruss, FLOW Legal Advisor

The vote was a hopeful sign of progress, demonstrating an understanding that malfunctioning septic systems can affect surface water and groundwater locally and statewide, potentially burdening communities with avoidable harmful economic, health and environmental outcomes.

Scientific studies have found human fecal contamination affecting 100% of our river systems in the Lower Peninsula and that substandard, failing, or nonexistent septic systems are the primary driver of human fecal bacteria found in our rivers and streams. A study this year found that as many as 27 percent of all septic systems in Michigan households may be failing.

Scientific studies have found human fecal contamination affecting 100% of our river systems in the Lower Peninsula and that as many as 27 percent of all septic systems in Michigan households may be failing.

The Great Lakes surrounding Michigan hold 95 percent of all fresh surface water in the United States and 84 percent of all fresh surface water in North America. Leelanau County, a peninsula within a peninsula, has the most freshwater shoreline of any county in the Lower Peninsula.

Remarkably, Michigan, seated at the very heart of the Great Lakes, is the only state without a state law setting minimum standards for the construction, maintenance and inspection of septic systems. Counties and local governments have had to step up, enacting local ordinances in recognition that a septic system inspection requirement would help identify failing systems, protect groundwater, reduce contaminated wastewater migration to our beautiful lakes and protect property values.

Remarkably, Michigan, seated at the very heart of the Great Lakes, is the only state without a state law setting minimum standards for the construction, maintenance and inspection of septic systems. Counties and local governments have had to step up, enacting local ordinances.

The good news is that, despite daily indications of bitter polarization in our politics, our community’s concern for safeguarding our Great Lakes is a deeply shared value, an important area of common ground that bridges the political divide — as affirmed by the vote of the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners. The State of Michigan and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also have proclaimed Sept. 19-23 to be SepticSmart Week and are providing outreach materials encouraging homeowners and communities to inspect and maintain their septic systems.

For Love of Water (FLOW), the Traverse City-based law and policy center, has focused on the protection of groundwater and its relationship to Great Lakes water quality. FLOW’s recent work includes creating and moderating the Michigan Groundwater Table, an 18-month collaboration among local government organizations, state agencies, environmental and justice organizations and Michigan’s universities to identify key groundwater-protection strategies and make recommendations for their implementation (See related storymap here).

FLOW continues to focus on the protection of groundwater and its relationship to Great Lakes water quality.

Among the findings of the Groundwater Table is that septic system performance writ large is, in fact, an infrastructure issue.

With the influx of state and federal funding targeted at water infrastructure support, this may be a particularly opportune time to revisit statewide solutions, including provisions for low-income assistance to address substandard systems.

Meanwhile, hats off to the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners for recognizing that protection of this extraordinary, globally unique natural endowment that is our Great Lakes is an environmental, economic and public health imperative.

About the author: Skip Pruss is a legal adviser with FLOW and formerly directed the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth. You can reach him at pruss@5lakesenergy.com.


Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for daily updates. To get you started, here is today’s tip from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reminding all of us: Don’t Strain Your Drain! 

SepticSmart Week: Progress on Protecting Public Health and Fresh Water

Graphic courtesy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


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. 

Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org 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:


U.S. EPA–Top 10 Ways to be a Good Septic System Owner (Click on image for larger version).

Michigan’s lack of a statewide sanitary code ranks the state dead last in preventing pollution from failing septic systems. With an estimated 130,000 failing or malfunctioning septic systems in the state, the status quo is a threat to public health and Pure Michigan. That’s why FLOW has been taking action with you and key stakeholders during the last few years to educate and empower the public and key stakeholders and pursue solutions.

This week presents another key opportunity to make a difference. Join FLOW starting today through Friday for SepticSmart Week, 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.

Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for daily updates.

State of Michigan’s 2022  Proclamation on SepticSmart Week 2022 (Click on image for larger version).

Each day this week, FLOW will release SepticSmart Week content, including original articles and videos providing facts, tips, and inspiration to help you be part of the solution to this shared challenge of not only septic system pollution, but also the broader challenge of surface and groundwater contamination in Michigan. (If you are unsure about what a septic system is or how it works, start here).

Slow, But Perceptible Progress on a Septic Code

FLOW’s action on septic system pollution began with our 2018 groundwater report, The Sixth Great Lake, which emphasized that in addition to releasing an estimated 9.4 billion gallons of poorly or untreated sewage into the soil and environment each year, failing septic systems release household chemicals that residents pour down their drains. Our report called for a uniform statewide sanitary code in Michigan.

In November 2019, FLOW and our partners and allies hosted a Michigan Septic Summit, attended by over 150 public health experts, scientists, local government representatives, nonprofit organizations, and interested citizens. We noted that the Summit “underscored a growing resolve in the state to do something meaningful about septic system pollution. Historically, when Michigan’s various interests have come together in good faith to solve an environmental problem, they have succeeded.”

The Michigan Septic Summit “underscored a growing resolve in the state to do something meaningful about septic system pollution. Historically, when Michigan’s various interests have come together in good faith to solve an environmental problem, they have succeeded.”

Since then we have continued to educate and empower the public and key stakeholders with the information and impetus to take action on septic system policy in order to protect public health, local communities, lakes, and ecosystems—especially groundwater, the source of drinking water for 45% of Michigan’s population.

The Michigan Groundwater Table Builds Consensus on Need for Protection

FLOW in January 2021 created and for a year convened the Michigan Groundwater Table, composed of 22 knowledgeable and influential stakeholders from local government, academia, and regulatory agencies.

The Groundwater Table’s work culminated with FLOW hosting a livestream event—Groundwater: Making the Invisible Visible on World Water Day & Every Day—last March and then in June with our release of a report, Building Consensus: Securing Protection of Michigan’s Groundwater, and accompanying story map. The report contains consensus findings about the status of Michigan’s groundwater and also recommendations on how to improve its protection. The Groundwater Table agreed it should be a priority to develop a statewide initiative to enable inspection and repair of septic systems, including funding to empower local health agencies to conduct periodic inspections and facilitate compliance and to assist homeowners in replacing failing systems.

FLOW continues to educate and empower the public on the need for a statewide septic system policy in order to protect public health, local communities, lakes, and ecosystems—especially groundwater, the source of drinking water for 45% of Michigan’s population.

Progress on statewide septic policy in Michigan has been slow, but it is perceptible and continues. Acting on a recommendation from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and with the backing of FLOW and many other environmental groups, the Michigan Legislature this year approved $35 million in low-interest loans to help homeowners pay for replacing failing septic systems. It’s a down payment on a problem that will require much more investment to fix.

Contact State Representative Jeff Yaroch, a Republican from Macomb County, to express your support Michigan House Bill 6101, which would create a statewide septic code.

Additional progress is the tentative scheduling in Lansing of a September 28, 2022, meeting of the Michigan House Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Committee to consider a proposed statewide sanitary code. Although House leadership to date has not signaled an intent to pass the legislation–Michigan House Bill 6101–this year, its introduction and potential consideration is a recognition that the problem is not going away—and that state level action is vital. Contact the bill’s sponsor, State Representative Jeff Yaroch, a Republican from Macomb County, to express your support for a statewide septic code.

FLOW continues to work with the public and partners—community leaders, scientists, public health experts, academics, environmental advocates, realtors, and state and local lawmakers—to seek solutions to unregulated, polluting septic systems. Public education is vital to solving the longstanding problem. 

Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for daily updates. To get you started, here is today’s tip from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reminding all of us to “Think at the Sink!”

 

Building Consensus to Protect Michigan’s Groundwater

The old saying, “out of sight, out of mind,” all too often characterizes Michigan’s approach to groundwater.

Understanding that Michigan residents and key stakeholders should value stewardship of all water, including groundwater, FLOW in January 2021 launched and convened the Michigan Groundwater Table composed of diverse membership and perspectives. After more than a year of work, FLOW is releasing a report today, and accompanying story map, on the Groundwater Table’s work.

The report, Building Consensus: Securing Protection of Michigan’s Groundwater, reflects the work of 22 knowledgeable and influential stakeholders from local government, academia, and regulatory agencies. It contains consensus findings about the status of Michigan’s groundwater and also recommendations on how to improve its protection. Although consensus was not achieved on all groundwater policy options, we are heartened by progress toward consensus on several recommendations related to:

  • Polluter pay
  • Private wells
  • Agricultural stewardship
  • Statewide septic code
  • Public education
  • Data tools.

Michigan’s groundwater is a critical part of Michigan’s present and future. Increasing population, a changing climate, and limited public funding for prevention and cleanup of contamination will continue to stress groundwater resources.

Groundwater Table members also agreed that Michigan’s groundwater is a “critical and often overlooked resource,” vital to the state’s public health, agriculture and other businesses, coldwater fisheries, stream ecology, and wetlands, and accounts for at least 25% of the total water inflow to the Great Lakes via groundwater inflow into tributaries. They also found that Michigan has underinvested in monitoring, mapping, and reporting groundwater quantity and quality.

The immersive story map, meanwhile, takes you on a visual journey from the groundwater basics to unique ecosystems, threats, and protection.

FLOW’s Commitment to Groundwater Protection

In a series of reports dating back to 2018, FLOW has called attention to the gap between the importance of groundwater to Michigan’s health and welfare and the state’s historically inconsistent groundwater policies. We have spotlighted groundwater because a significant percentage of the population knows and thinks little of it, even though groundwater provides drinking water, supports agriculture and industry, is critical to Michigan’s internationally renowned trout streams, and more.

The Building Consensus report concludes that Michigan’s groundwater is a critical part of Michigan’s present and future. Increasing population, a changing climate, and limited public funding for prevention and cleanup of contamination will continue to stress groundwater resources. Unless policymakers make a lasting commitment to groundwater protection and stewardship, Michigan will suffer from a degraded resource unable to serve the state’s needs.

The blueprint now exists for protecting Michigan’s groundwater—it is time to act on it.

What the Big Water Infrastructure Law Means for Michigan

On March 30, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed into law a $4.7 billion bill that includes almost $2 billion for water infrastructure.  Overwhelming majorities of the State House and Senate approved the bill on March 24.

Relying heavily on federal COVID-19 relief and infrastructure dollars, the legislation funds wastewater and drinking water projects, efforts to curb PFAS contamination, assistance to replace failing septic systems, replacement of lead pipes in municipal drinking water systems, and a healthy hydration program to eliminate children’s lead exposure in school drinking water supplies.

The new law also contains funding for state parks maintenance, dam safety, and non-environmental projects. Deeply concerning is the $50 million taxpayer-funded subsidy the legislation provides to a private company to mine potash in Osceola County, which has drawn well-informed criticism from Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC), as well as from FLOW. MCWC asked Governor Whitmer to veto the item. The proposed operation would withdraw 1,200 gallons of groundwater per minute, more than 630 million gallons per year, contaminate it with brine, hydrogen sulfide, and hydrocarbons, then inject it underground in sensitive wetland areas that flow into the Muskegon River. Whitmer did not veto the subsidy.

“This legislation is a major step forward in protecting Michigan’s drinking water and our lakes and streams, but it is not perfect,” said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood. “Big as this bill is, it represents a much needed down payment. The estimated gap between our water infrastructure needs and what we’ve been spending is almost $1 billion – per year.

“We also need to develop policies and funding mechanisms that make public water affordable for all, while preventing shutoffs,” she said.

Lisa Wozniak, the executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, called the water infrastructure legislation “a huge win for our water.” 

Conan Smith, president and CEO of the Michigan Environmental Council, said the legislation “will be instrumental in ensuring Michiganders everywhere have access to clean, safe drinking water and will protect human health, not to mention create jobs and strengthen our economy.”

Key items in the bill include:

  • $750 million for drinking water infrastructure improvement projects
  • $515 million for wastewater and stormwater upgrades
  • $450 million for local and state parks and trails
  • $200 million for the Four Lakes Task Force to fix the dams that burst two years ago in Midland County
  • $138.8 million to replace lead service lines, including $45 million in Benton Harbor and $75 million in Detroit
  • $88.2 million to address emerging contaminants, like toxic PFAS contaminants in storm and wastewater
  • $50 million for a Healthy Hydration program providing drinking water filters in schools and childcare facilities
  • $35 million to address failing septic systems
  • $25 million for electric vehicle (EV) industry support and pilot programs

Sponsored by Republican Senator Jon Bumstead, Senate Bill 565 originally included $3.3 billion of funding for water, which was more than Governor Whitmer, a Democrat, was willing to support at the time. After negotiations, the bill grew to $4.7 billion, adding funds for non-environmental needs, including emergency rental assistance and road and bridge projects.

Two of FLOW’s priorities are in the bill:

  • A $35 million program of low-interest and no-interest loans to help  property owners replace failing septic systems. With an estimated 130,000 failing systems leaking human waste and household hazardous wastes into Michigan’s groundwater and surface water, the need is great.
  • $10 million to implement recommendations of the state Water Use Advisory Council. Endorsed by the multi-stakeholder Michigan Groundwater Table convened by FLOW, the recommendations for monitoring, data collection, analysis, and reporting should lead to better stewardship of groundwater

In addition to the controversial potash mining subsidy, Smith said the bill contained a “fairly egregious insertion” of $25 million for building new low-carbon energy facilities. “This very likely means funding for ethanol and other biogas projects, rather than wind and solar. These projects have far-reaching consequences, including slowing our transition away from natural gas and exacerbating problems with monoculture agriculture that we are already experiencing in Michigan,” Smith said.

Many implementation details remain to be resolved. The legislation gives significant leeway to state agencies in funding projects. For example, the legislation’s septic system language calls for the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) to “establish and support a loan program that provides low- or no-interest loans to municipalities, residents, and other entities deemed necessary by [EGLE] to protect public health and the environment through addressing failing septic systems.”

FLOW and other environmental organizations will make recommendations regarding, and monitor the implementation of, the environmental provisions of the infrastructure legislation to assure maximum benefits to Michigan residents in greatest need and the environment.

Michigan Septic Summit Draws Packed Crowd to Traverse City

Above: Nature Change’s Joe VanderMeulen and FLOW’s Liz Kirkwood welcome attendees to the Michigan Septic Summit on Nov. 6, 2019, at Northwestern Michigan College’s Hagerty Center in Traverse City. All photos by Rick Kane.


We really didn’t know what the level of public interest would be when FLOW started working with Joe VanderMeulen of Nature Change—as well as a variety of expert presenters, co-sponsors, and community partners—to develop a day-long summit devoted to Michigan’s septic dilemma.

Would people show up for a whole day to talk about old and failing septic systems? And sit still through an intestinal-bacteria presentation during lunch? Was our estimate of 150 registrants realistic?

Those questions were answered with a resounding “yes” on Wednesday, at our first-ever Michigan Septic Summit, which overflowed with more than 160 attendees and interest in:

  • Exploring the latest septic system research on the human health and environmental risks,
  • Learning about local and regional programs and regulations adopted in response to surface water and groundwater quality threats, and
  • Fostering dialogue toward more effective and geographically extensive efforts to reduce risks from septic system waste.

More than 160 people from around Michigan turned out and tuned in to presentations, panel discussions, and peer-to-peer conversations around regulating Michigan’s septic waste.

 

On the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case that delved into septic tanks, Michiganders demonstrated we care about public health and water that’s safe for drinking, bathing, swimming, fishing, boating, and beachcombing. We care about finding equitable solutions to one of humankind’s oldest problems in communal living—disposing of human waste safely in Michigan, 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 of unregulated septic waste 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.

Some of the many highlights of the Michigan Septic Summit, which was streamed live by Traverse Area Community Media and available to watch now on TACM and Facebook, include:

Scott Kendzierski,  Director of Environmental Health Services at the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, in his presentation on “Construction and Maintenance of Septic Systems,” identified an emerging issue in septic management: the seasonal rental scenario, in which a three-bedroom home with a septic system designed and permitted in the 1970s for perhaps six occupants is now accommodating more than three times that many people as vacationers, overtaxing an aging or possibly failed system.

Scott Kendzierski presents at the Michigan Septic Summit on construction and maintenance of old and new septic systems in Michigan.

A slide from the presentation by Scott Kendzierski at the Michigan Septic Summit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Mark Borchardt, a research microbiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, Marshfield, Wisconsin, detailed a fascinating story of forensic detection in the case of disease outbreak in a Wisconsin restaurant with a new septic system that failed and contaminated the restaurant’s well and customers.

An audience member asked Borchardt about how high water levels affect septic-system effectiveness in deterring the spread of pathogens. He responded that ideally a system would put maximum distance between a septic drainfield and groundwater level; the higher the water table, the shorter the distance for microbes to travel from wastewater to drinking and surface water.

Jon Beard of Public Sector Consultants, a non-partisan public policy firm in Lansing, revealed perhaps the worst canine job in the world: Source-tracking bacterial contamination. He also shared a startling mid-Michigan survey result: 30% of residents with a septic system did not know they had one. And even more alarmingly, later presenters judged this figure to be too low.

A Michigan Septic Summit participant ponders suggestions from attendees regarding potential solutions for Michigan’s poorly regulated, old and failing septic systems.

Afternoon panels increased our understanding of the complexities facing local communities, all of which are united in the desire to protect groundwater from contamination. Rob Karner, watershed biologist at the Glen Lakes Association in Leelanau County, offered, “I have yet to find anybody who says, ‘I want to pollute the water. I want to drink contaminated water.’ It all comes down to this: Loving the water.”

FLOW’s Executive Director Liz Kirkwood echoed, “We’re having these conversations because we love the Great Lakes. Michigan is the Great Lakes State, and despite our infrastructure crisis, Michiganders really care about clean water. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, we’re here because we love these waters.”

In reflecting on the success of the Septic Summit, FLOW’s founder and famed environmental attorney Jim Olson, summed up the summit this way: “The need to come together never ends. A conference on an important matter concerning our water and the common good goes beyond the adoption of a particular septic system law or code.”

“It brings together a wide spectrum of people, diverse speakers with diverse backgrounds and something to say, and demonstrates the value of education, bringing people together—people who not only care about groundwater and the tens of thousands of failing septic systems, but also about the world and the water, environment, and quality of life in which they live,” Olson said. “I drove home in wonder over the conference and the inspiring feeling from being in a room of people who authentically care, share, and listen at a critical time for our communities and the world.”

FLOW’s Senior Advisor Dave Dempsey facilitates the Michigan Septic Summit’s closing panel discussing, Where Do We Go from Here?

 

You can view the entire slide show here.

What’s next in the wake of the Septic Summit? Stay tuned as FLOW and allies from around the state, including Michigan Clean Water Action, Michigan Environmental Council, and many others, intend to support more local and regional education and build backing for legislative action to develop and pass a statewide septic code.