FLOW’s Senior Advisor Dave Dempsey facilitates the Michigan Septic Summit’s closing panel discussing, Where Do We Go from Here? Photo by Rick Kane
FLOW and partners look to grow awareness, pass statewide code
By Dave Dempsey
Can Michigan’s governance system succeed in solving one of our state’s worst water pollution problems?
That’s the key question in the wake of FLOW’s Michigan Septic Summit in Traverse City on November 6. Attended by more than 150 people representing diverse points of view, the summit demonstrated that there is widespread interest in addressing a problem that is putting our waters and human health at risk.
That problem—actually a challenge that has faced Michigan for decades—is the lack of a uniform state sanitary code to protect our rivers, lakes, and groundwater from pollution from failing septic systems. An estimated 10%, or 130,000, of Michigan’s septic systems are failing. Except for a handful or so of counties, townships, and villages that have passed their own ordinances, there are no standard requirements for inspection and proper maintenance of septic systems. Michigan is the only state that lacks statewide requirements. It is a glaring and unacceptable gap in Michigan’s water-protection laws.
The Septic Summit’s presentations, panel discussions, and audience questions addressed much of the detail that must be resolved in order to enact such a statewide code. Should inspections be required when property is sold or on a routine basis, perhaps every five or 10 years? How should a “failing” system be defined? What should be required if a system is found to be failing? What government agencies should be charged with enforcing a code, and how will they be funded? How can property owners be assisted in paying for expensive system repair or replacement? These are just a few of the knotty problems.
State political attention to the absence of a Michigan uniform sanitary code is nothing new. In 2004, as part of a special message on water issues she transmitted to the Legislature, former Governor Jennifer Granholm called for such a code. The then-Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) was asked to provide leadership in developing a code and to assemble a task force to formulate potential legislation.
Twenty-six organizations representing a variety of interests involving the septic waste problem were invited to name a representative to serve on the task force. But the work group ultimately could not agree on a solution. Legislators have proposed laws to cure the problem since then, but none has gained traction—again because of lack of consensus on how to act, if at all.
It’s a tricky governance problem. A large number of interests are concerned about both the problem and how a solution would affect them. In addition to private property owners who rely on septic systems, environmental groups, several state agencies, local health departments and environmental health administrators, local government officials, homebuilders, realtors, scientists, septic system waste haulers, and others all need to come to the table.
Doing so is an imperative. Presenters at last week’s Septic Summit underscored how failing systems are contaminating groundwater and surface water with microorganisms that sicken those who drink from or swim in the affected waters. Because households with septic systems use the same household hazardous materials that other households do, toxic contaminants are also entering waters from failing systems.
There is hope, however. 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. FLOW will be following up with Septic Summit attendees to share information, support educational efforts elsewhere in Michigan, and work with allies to craft a state legislative solution.
It will no doubt take time to reach consensus on what needs to be done, but there is no doubt something needs to be done. For Michigan’s environment and human health, we cannot afford further inaction on a statewide uniform sanitary code.
Dave Dempsey is FLOW’s senior policy adviser.