Tag: septic system

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.

Lack of Septic Maintenance Requirements Threatens Michigan Public Health

Michigan’s estimated 140,000 compromised septic systems aren’t just a water pollution problem — they’re a threat to human health.

A new video documentary produced by Joe VanderMeulen of NatureChange.org and sponsored by FLOW, the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council (NMEAC), Leelanau Clean Water, and the Benzie Conservation District underscores the serious health risks posed by a hidden pollution source fouling groundwater, lakes, streams and drinking water across Michigan.

Evidence is growing that on-site septic systems, used to handle and break down sewage and other household wastes in areas without public sewage treatment systems, are contributing to disease.

Michigan is the only state in the nation that lacks a statewide sanitary code requirement for periodic inspection of septic systems, meaning many are releasing wastes after years or decades without maintenance. Researchers have estimated that at least 10% of the state’s 1.4 million septic systems are failing and releasing pollutants to surface and ground waters.

“The best way to protect public health and our waters from failing septic systems is to enact a state law that makes sure all systems are periodically inspected,” says Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW. “There’s no excuse for inaction in the face of growing science that these systems can make us sick.”

Dr. Mark Borchardt, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, says, “What we have seen in the studies we’ve done is that the greater the number of septic systems, whether they’re failing or not, the more likely it is that people become ill.” Borchardt attributes the health impacts to fecal pollution.

Michigan State University’s Dr. Joan Rose, the Homer Nowlin Chair in water research, directed a 2015 study of 64 Michigan watersheds that found a direct correlation between the number of septic systems and the presence of both E. coli and human fecal bacteria in the water B-theta.  She estimates 10% to 18% of Michigan’s septic systems are compromised.

“The more the human marker in these watersheds, the more septic tanks,” Rose says. “It suggested to me that we have been underestimating the potential for on-site systems … to impact our surface waters.”

Before studies by Rose, Borchardt and others, it was assumed that soil could filter human sewage, acting as a natural treatment system. Unfortunately, if not properly placed and maintained, septic systems do not keep E. coli and other pathogens from ground and surface waters.  

A 10-year inspection program report prepared by the Barry-Eaton Health District found that 27% of on-site sewage systems required some actionranging from simple pumping to full-system replacement. Nevertheless, elected county commissioners repealed the ordinance, citing realtor complaints and property owner cost concerns.

“We don’t accept the discharge of poorly-treated human wastes from municipal sewage systems and we shouldn’t accept it from septic systems,” says Kirkwood.  “It’s time for reform to clean up our drinking water and the water we enjoy for swimming and fishing.”


Click below to view a 70-second promotional video that introduces “Flushing the Future: the Challenge of Failing Septic Systems”:


View the full documentary on NatureChange.org.

Don’t Do It in the River

Photo: A lack of septic regulations can lead to waste in our treasured waters. You wouldn’t “do it in the river,” would you?

By Dave Dempsey

Michigan prides itself on being an environmental leader, particularly in curbing water pollution. But in one area of water policy, Michigan is dead last among the 50 states. It is 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 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.

A typical septic system consists of a septic tank and a drainfield, or soil absorption field. The septic tank digests organic matter and separates floatable matter (oils and grease) and solids from the wastewater. Soil-based systems discharge the liquid (known as effluent) from the septic tank into a series of perforated pipes buried in a leach field, chambers, or other special units designed to slowly release the effluent into the soil.

If well maintained, septic systems can handle household liquid wastes effectively.  Unfortunately, many homeowners with septic systems are either unaware of, or unable or unwilling to assure, proper maintenance through pumping and replacement when they fail.

Given the lack of a statewide requirement, some counties and municipalities have adopted local ordinances that generally require inspections of septic systems when property changes hands. Such an ordinance in the Barry-Eaton County health district found 2,566 sites with sewage system failures out of 9,443 sewage system evaluations.

Under pressure from special interests, some local governments are now backing off protecting water resources from failing septic systems. The Barry-Eaton ordinance has been repealed, and Kalkaska County is considering repealing its time-of-sale requirement for septic inspection.

FLOW finds such pollution, and the lack of a state law addressing it, unacceptable.  State legislation to curb this source of water pollution is needed. The Michigan Legislature came close to enacting a law in 2018, but last-minute changes weakening the bill prevented its passage.

If you are concerned about failing septic systems polluting our waters, contact your state representative and senator and ask them to support a statewide law requiring proper maintenance—and keeping this waste out of our waters.