Editor’s note: Register today! FLOW will host a webinar on Tuesday, March 21, offering legal, scientific, economic, and political perspectives on the urgent need and critical opportunity for Michigan to finally join the rest of the nation in adopting a law to protect public health and fresh water from septic pollution. The online event is free and open to the public. Learn more and register today! Follow FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to stay current. Also see FLOW’s legislative agenda in Michigan, which highlights the need for a septic code.
By Skip Pruss, FLOW Legal Advisor
How is it that Michigan, the Great Lakes State, surrounded by the largest, most valuable fresh surface water system in the world, is the only state in the nation without standards to address defective and failing septic systems?
Yes, it’s true. The other 49 states recognize that failing and substandard septic systems represent a clear and present danger to public health and the environment. The other 49 states have laws that set minimum standards for the construction, maintenance, and inspection of septic systems for treating human sewage—but remarkably, Michigan has not.
And we know that Michigan’s neglect has led to widespread surface water and groundwater contamination.
Scientific studies have shown that human fecal contamination can be found in 100% of our river systems in the Lower Peninsula and that substandard, failing, or nonexistent septic systems are the primary cause. Statewide, up to 26 percent of Michigan’s 1.3 million septic systems at homes and businesses may be failing, with many of those floundering systems located on our Great Lakes shorelines and on our inland lakes and streams.
Failing septic systems deliver disease-causing pathogens to surface water and groundwater. They can elevate nitrate levels in drinking water, putting infants and pregnant women at risk, and cause harmful algae blooms. Poorly maintained septic systems can result in the need for expensive repairs or replacement, impairing property values.
It Is Time for Legislative Action
Michigan’s new legislature has the opportunity to accomplish what prior legislatures have been unable or unwilling to do—set legal standards for the reasonable oversight of onsite wastewater treatment systems, as every other state has done. Enacting legislation will help identify failing systems, protect groundwater and drinking water wells, support property values, and reduce contaminated wastewater migrating to our lakes, rivers, and streams.
The Great Lakes surrounding Michigan hold 95 percent of all available fresh surface water in the United States and 84 percent of all fresh surface water in North America. We are blessed with over 3,200 miles of Great Lakes coastline—the largest freshwater coastline in the world.
Safeguarding our Great Lakes is a deeply shared value. Polling by the International Joint Commission has found overwhelming support (88 percent) for protecting water quality across broad demographic groups and respondents of all ages.
Despite daily indications of bitter polarization in our politics, properly addressing failing septic systems is a rare area of political consensus. Protecting Michigan’s extraordinary water resources is an important area of common ground, bringing citizens together in common purpose and bridging political divides.
Now is the time.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.