Time to get serious about solving Michigan's septic problem

Editor's note: This post is by MEC intern Matthew McLaughlin

A story of infrastructure long forgotten is developing in Michigan. While we rank number one in the country for most dissatisfaction for road conditions, the recent tragedy in Flint has forced all Michigan citizens to consider the infrastructure that we don't see. Here and in other states, an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality has led to neglect of water lines, municipal sewers and other infrastructure.

That neglect is especially apparent when it comes to on-site wastewater treatment systems, commonly known as septic systems, used by homes that are not connected to a centralized sewer system. Michigan has about 1.3 million septic systems in its rural areas and sprawling suburbs. Once septics are installed, many homeowners simply don't remember to have them inspected, or even emptied, unless a problem occurs. This history of neglect has led to a widespread problem of failing systems.

Surprisingly, given the central role fresh water plays in our lifestyle and identity, Michigan is the only state without a law that specifically regulates septics. Eleven counties exercise some oversight of septics, including regular inspections, but they are unregulated in the remaining 72 counties. The state has attempted to address the problem multiple times, including in 2004 when then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm created the On-Site Wastewater Treatment Systems Task Force. That year the task force released a white paper with recommendations for a statewide sanitary code regulating septics. To date, however, there has not been a legislative solution to the problem.

And it is a serious problem. Joan Rose, an expert in water microbiology, water quality and public health, and others at Michigan State University recently found that rivers in areas with high concentrations of septic systems have increased evidence of E. coli and B. theta, which are indicators of human waste. In fact, they found evidence of sewage in all 64 river systems that they sampled. The state's water strategy, issued last year by the Department of Environmental Quality, estimated that 10 percent of the state's septics-about 130,000 systems-are failing and leaking an astounding 31 million gallons of sewage every day into our rivers, lakes and ground water. That's a conservative estimate, far lower than observed rates in other states.

Laws in other states have led to major improvements in septic system infrastructure, significantly reducing the percentage of failing systems. And we've seen success at the local level here in Michigan. Benzie County, for example, found failure rates of 15 to 18 percent when it began implementing a septic ordinance in 1990. Within a few years, that rate was down to 10 percent.

Minnesota has also been grappling with pollution from septic systems. In 2004, 39 percent of all Minnesota septics were failing. To address this problem, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency prepared for legislators a 10 year plan  that laid out steps to address failing systems. The agency estimated that the state would need to invest $2.3 million annually to reduce the percentage of failing systems by 10 percent each year over the 10 year plan.

Initially, lawmakers in Minnesota, like those in Michigan, balked at the cost of addressing this failing infrastructure and did not fully implement the plan. A follow up report in 2012 showed that, instead of hitting the recommended 10 percent annual replacement rate, the state was replacing failing septic systems at an underwhelming pace of .8 percent per year.

But that report was the call for action that some legislators needed, and in 2015 they passed regulations requiring permits and regular inspections to be conducted once every three years for existing systems. Permit fees cover the program costs. For low-income families, there are small-interest loans and grants available to finance replacement.

Surrounded by the world's greatest freshwater resource, Michigan should set a strong example in addressing our failing infrastructure. While it's far from perfect, state leaders finally passed a road-funding plan last year. The governor has put forth a proposal requiring local governments to identify lead pipes and write plans to get rid of them-though it still needs legislative approval, adequate funding and strong implementation. Fixing septic systems is another major infrastructure need, and it is time for Michigan to put together and pass a serious plan for tackling this problem.


Septic tank installation photo courtesy Andy Rogers via Flickr.

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