Tag: septic code

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.