Tag: septic

Policy Brief: The Case for a Statewide Septic Code in Michigan

Policy Brief: The Case for a Statewide Septic Code in Michigan (Download PDF)

Michigan is located at the heart of the most extensive fresh surface water system in North America, which comprises about 90% of all fresh surface water in the region. However, it is the only state in the US that does not have a statewide septic code.

According to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), Michigan has more than 1.3 million septic systems, which represent a danger to public health and the environment when they fail.

A septic code would set minimum standards for septic tank construction, maintenance, and inspection. State and local governments have been working towards implementing policy solutions for the past two decades, but they have yet to succeed. Out of Michigan’s 83 counties, only 11 have inspection requirements. House Bills 4479 and 4480 have been introduced to address the dire situation.

Download our policy brief to learn more about this important issue, and how the state of Michigan can move forward to protect groundwater.

FLOW’s Legislative Recommendations for Michigan’s 102nd Legislature

PDF DOWNLOAD: FLOW Legislative Recommendations for 102nd Legislature

As a non-partisan, nonprofit law and policy center, a key component of our mission is to help Michigan’s elected leaders uphold their duties under Article IV, Section 52 of the state constitution, the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, and the public trust doctrine to protect the waters of the state from pollution, impairment, and destruction. Our policy recommendations are responsive to these legal duties, the best available science, and pragmatism.

To fulfill its legal duties in 2024, the 102nd Legislature should prioritize the enactment of four bills

1. Statewide Septic Code


Michigan is the only U.S. state without a uniform septic code governing the construction, maintenance, and inspection of septic systems. As a result, roughly 338,000 failing septic systems are polluting ground and surface waters with human fecal microbial waste. Extensive research by Michigan State University sampled 83% of the river systems in the Lower Peninsula and found human fecal contamination in 100% of river system samples. The study also found that the primary source of microbial contamination was substandard, failing, or nonexistent septic systems. In addition to harming our natural resources, this septic contamination poses a serious public health problem to the drinking water of nearly 4 million Michiganders who rely on private wells.


FLOW is working with a diverse coalition that includes public health agencies, EGLE, septage haulers, SEMCOG, MEC, MML, MAC, and other important organizations to address technical issues that are critical for the successful implementation of a statewide septic code. Strategies to overcoming more than 30 years of legislative gridlock are: (1) establishing a reasonable inspection schedule; (2) ensuring county health departments have sufficient resources to administer inspections; and (3) providing financial assistance to septic system owners who may not be able to afford the cost of repairs or replacements. Michigan’s 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.

2. Polluter Accountability


The Michigan Legislature has enacted a number of polluter entitlement laws that prevent state agencies from adequately protecting water resources. These legislative actions include:

  • Elimination of the “polluter pay” law (1995), which effectively shifts the cost of cleaning up contaminated sites (including state waters) from the entities that caused the pollution to the taxpayers that are harmed by it.
  • Reliance on “institutional controls” (2018), which has allowed polluters to leave more than 3,000 legacy sites and new releases of contamination in state waters subject to use restrictions, rather than clean them up.

As a result of these and other polluter entitlements, Michigan now has 24,000 known contaminated sites, including thousands of known and unknown sources of groundwater and surface water contamination. Almost half of these sites are “orphaned” sites with no known responsible party, resulting in the state being responsible for assessing and remediating these sites without adequate funding.


Proposed bills would hold polluters accountable for the pollution they create and the ensuing harm that it causes. The Polluter Pay Accountability Act will serve to transform Michigan from the Rust Belt to the Blue Belt, with overwhelming public support and a robust coalition backing it.

3. Stormwater Utilities


Michigan has already suffered immense financial losses due to flooding, and it’s predicted that damages will only rise with the expected increased frequency and severity of storm events. The consequences of flooding are harsh and include harmful algal blooms and chemical pollution, which in turn can pose serious public health risks and trigger beach closures. According to the Western Kentucky University Stormwater Utility Survey, Michigan has a mere twelve stormwater utilities (SWUs), while Wisconsin boasts over 200; and Minnesota, Ohio, and Indiana each have over 100. It’s crucial that we take action to increase the number of SWUs in Michigan to prevent further damage, ensure the safety of our communities, and build climate resilience.


Adopting stormwater utilities has emerged as a widely accepted policy approach to tackle this issue. The Clean Water Act mandates municipalities to minimize water pollution from surface runoff. Michigan has so few SWUs in large part because of the 1998 Michigan Supreme Court case, Bolt v. City of Lansing, which held that Lansing’s stormwater service charge was structured as an illegal tax and not a “user fee.” FLOW is collaborating with key stakeholders to develop a Bolt-compliant stormwater management utility act that will protect our environment, economy, and water resources. By passing this type of legislation, we can effectively manage stormwater runoff, mitigate flooding risks and beach closures, build climate-resilient infrastructure, and ensure that we have clean water for our families and future generations.

4. Michigan Public Water Trust Act


Private corporations presently extract and sell public water for hundreds of millions of dollars in profit each year while paying virtually nothing to the state. Michigan has, in effect, allowed a publicly owned natural resource to be commodified. Consistent with Michigan’s long established jurisprudence, the law should recognize that Michigan waters are a public trust resource. Moreover, with a large and increasing number of Michiganders in both urban and rural communities unable to afford to pay their water bills and facing the prospect of water shutoffs, our laws should provide assistance to these communities.


In the wake of the Flint lead crisis, the Detroit water shutoffs, and the Nestle 2016 water grab, FLOW authored model legislation to protect water quality, advance water equity, ensure that the waters of the State remain a public resource, and annually provide communities and water utilities with over $250 million in annual funding to address water affordability and infrastructure needs. Modeled after the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, the Michigan Public Water Trust Act holds the waters of Michigan as a public trust, designates our citizens as the beneficiaries, and requires the government to act as the fiduciary and to ensure that public trust is protected from harm, impairment, and appropriation.

Why does Michigan need a statewide code for septic systems?

There’s a loose patchwork of septic standards in Michigan

Because of the lack of state standards to assure replacement of failing septic systems, 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.

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.

How septic systems work (and what happens when they don’t)

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 then 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. The gravel and soil filter the wastewater before it flows into the groundwater or nearby surface water (streams, ponds, lakes, etc.).

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 approximately 200 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. 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. 

Tips for Properly Maintaining Septic Systems


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.

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

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.

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 day—too much water at once can overload a system that hasn’t been pumped recently.

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

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.

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.


Don’t flush that!

Guest post by Michigan State University Extension natural resources and water quality educator, Beth Clawson

It is no secret that tossing foreign objects into your toilet or sink drains will plug them up. But did you also know that they plug up your municipal wastewater treatment facilities and home onsite wastewater (septic) systems as well? Across the nation, sanitation districts have been investing in public awareness efforts to educate the public about flushing the wrong stuff. Toilets should only be flushing body waste and toilet paper because all other items plug the plumbing and fill up septic tanks faster.

Common sign seen in the restroom of public buildings | Photo by Beth Clawson, MSU Extension

Items such as facial tissue, paper towel, sanitary wipes (including baby wipes), feminine hygiene products, food stuffs, hair, dental floss, adhesive bandages and the like, do not break down. Municipal sewer systems must filter and strain these products out prior to processing wastewater, increasing the cost of this public service. Septic tanks just fill up faster, as most of these products don’t break down during the anaerobic digestion process. This leads to filling and drain field system failures.

According to research from the Portland, Maine water district, pipe clogs were caused by solid blockages. When they were sorted, the percentages were surprising:

  • paper products (40 percent)
  • baby wipes (18 percent)
  • other sanitary wipes (12 percent)
  • feminine hygiene products (18 percent)
  • household wipes, medical materials and cosmetic products (7 percent).

Even if the product label says that it is “safe to flush” and that it will not harm septic tanks, often such products fail to break up and decompose quickly enough to avoid clogs and failures.

Other things you should not put in your plumbing or toilets include:

  • Chemicals – They should be sent to your household hazardous waste collectors because they are bad for the environment.
  • Paints – They can stop bacterial action in septic tanks.
  • Medications – They often contain antibiotics which, in turn, stop the bacterial action in septic tanks.
  • Cat litter – It contains clay and sand causing blockages.
  • Cotton balls and cotton swabs – They swell with moisture causing blockages and do not break down.
  • Dental floss, hair, and other stringy items – They catch other materials present creating blockages.

Screening and cleaning wastewater before it can be treated and discharged costs thousands of dollars annually. By only flushing what is supposed to be flushed —  body waste and toilet paper — you are saving time and money. Avoiding clogs and septic fill ups can extend the life of these ever so important infrastructure installations for many years to come.

If you are a private homeowner with an onsite wastewater treatment (septic tank), you should have it serviced and pumped every three to five years depending on your specific situation. Avoid adding cleaners and antibacterial products that can disrupt the delicate ecosystem that is in your anaerobic wastewater treatment system. Additionally, you should avoid adding excessive water to your system by spreading your laundry wash over the week. Avoid operating dishwashers and washing machines at the same time.

To learn more about onsite wastewater systems and water quality, contact Michigan State University Extension Natural Resources educators who are working across Michigan to provide aquatic invasive species educational programming and assistance. You can contact an educator through MSU Extension’s Ask an Expert tool.

This article was originally published by Michigan State University Extension. For more information, visit https://www.canr.msu.edu/outreach/.

Michigan’s Sixth Great Lake: FLOW featured in July 31 “Northern Express”

FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood sat down with the Northern Express to talk about Michigan’s unheralded “Sixth Great Lake”: Groundwater. In the July 31, 2023 issue, learn about Michigan’s hydrological connections, and how FLOW is working to protect all the waters of the Great Lakes Basin through our work on education, septic codes, and polluter pay laws.

Michigan’s Sixth Great Lake: Northern Express July 31, 2023 >>

Michigan: First in Fresh Water, Last in Septic Regulation

This fall, the Michigan legislature will have an opportunity to correct a grievous and egregious deficiency in Michigan’s water policy. How is it that in the third decade of the 21st Century, Michigan, the Great Lakes State, is the only state of 50 without a statewide code setting minimum standards for the design, construction, and inspection of septic systems?

When surveyed, Michigan citizens clearly value and take pride in our water wealth and broadly share concerns over protecting this extraordinary natural resource. Yet it appears that the beauty and superabundance of the Great Lakes and tributary rivers and streams conceal the very real harms that are well known to scientists, environmental professionals, and public health officials.

Studies have revealed that all the river systems within the lower peninsula are contaminated with human microbial fecal matter attributable to failing and substandard septic systems. In most Michigan counties there is no requirement to inspect septic systems or even pump out septic tanks. Indeed, the few county programs that attempt to inspect household septic systems when homes are sold have found that some homes are neither connected to municipal waste systems nor have any septic system whatsoever.

Fortunately, Senator Sam Singh and Representative Phil Skaggs (D – 80th) have introduced twin bills – Senate Bills 299 and 300; House Bills 4479  and 4480 – that would rectify this situation, setting minimum state performance standards for onsite wastewater treatment systems and requiring periodic inspections of existing systems.  

Most Michigan citizens are surprised and disheartened to learn that Michigan is the only state in the nation with 19th Century onsite waste policies.  

That is why FLOW has taken a leadership role in advancing these needed reforms and is asking its supporters to reach out to their elected representatives and insist that corrective legislation pass this fall.

Michigan Legislature on Wednesday Will Consider Bill to Control Waste from Septic Systems

Editor’s note: FLOW supports the consideration of newly introduced legislation to control septic system sewage and looks forward to helping strengthen the bill’s provisions to ensure the strongest possible protections for public health and public waters. Please read the article, and use the links to contact the bill’s co-sponsors using the information below to express your support.

Wednesday marks an important moment in the decades-long effort to protect Michigan’s public health, wells, and water from pollution caused by failing septic systems. At 10:30 a.m. on Weds., Sept. 28, a state legislative committee will take up a bill requiring inspection of septic systems at the time a property is sold.

FLOW encourages the public to contact the bill’s co-sponsors—Rep. Yaroch and Rep. Rendon—to express support for their legislation to protect public health and public waters.

The House Committee on Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation will hear testimony on House Bill 6101, which was introduced by Rep. Jeff Yaroch, R-Macomb County, and Rep. Daire Rendon of Lake City, in Missaukee County. While the committee bill is not expected to vote on the measure Wednesday, the hearing could lay the groundwork for action after the November election, during the lame-duck session, or early in the 2023 legislative session. FLOW encourages the public to contact the bill’s co-sponsors—Rep. Yaroch and Rep. Rendon—to express support for their legislation to protect public health and public waters.

Michigan is the only state lacking a law to require inspection of septic systems. It is an urgent priority, with an estimated 130,000 failing septic systems in Michigan releasing approximately 9.4 billion gallons of poorly or untreated sewage into the soil and environment each year.

Michigan is the only state lacking a law to require inspection of septic systems. An estimated 130,000 failing septic systems in Michigan each year release approximately 9.4 billion gallons of poorly or untreated sewage into the soil and environment.

How Did We Get Here on Septic?

For two decades, proponents of the legislation have unsuccessfully attempted to secure passage by the legislature of such a law. FLOW and many of our allied organizations support a statewide septic code, working for years to lay the groundwork for passage. FLOW supports the introduction of H.B. 6101 and looks forward to helping strengthen the bill’s provisions to ensure the strongest protections for public health and public waters.

One of the witnesses scheduled to testify on Wednesday is Dr. Joan Rose, a Michigan State University researcher and microbiologist, who co-authored a study finding human fecal indicator bacteria in every river tested in a 64 river systems that drain approximately 84 percent of the Lower Peninsula. 

Dr. Joan Rose, a Michigan State University researcher and microbiologist, will testify Wednesday on the septic bill.

Rose was a key presenter at the Michigan Septic Summit, hosted in November 2019 by FLOW and our partners and allies and attended by over 150 public health experts, scientists, local government representatives, nonprofit organizations, and interested citizens. At the Septic Summit, Dr. Rose spoke about her study’s finding on septic pollution.

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.”

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.

Learn More

To learn more, dive into FLOW’s original articles, videos, and other content on the need to stop septic pollution, including materials published Sept. 19-23 during SepticSmart Week, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency annual educational initiative, at www.ForLoveOfWater.org and on FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.