By Kelly House and Robin Erb, Bridge Michigan
The Great Lakes News Collaborative includes Bridge Michigan; Circle of Blue; Great Lakes Now at Detroit Public Television; and Michigan Radio, Michigan’s NPR News Leader; who work together to bring audiences news and information about the impact of climate change, pollution, and aging infrastructure on the Great Lakes and drinking water. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Find all the work HERE.
It’s hardly the sexiest idea, but getting toilet water out of Michigan’s waterways is one of the rare areas of bipartisan agreement these days in Lansing.
Nearly 30 percent of Michigan homes have septic systems — well above the national average of about 20 percent — and an association of Michigan health officials wants to use $12.5 million in federal stimulus dollars to establish a revolving fund to offer no-interest loans of up to $15,000 to Michigan families to repair or replace old septic systems.
“If we don’t act now, we just kick this can down the road, and it doesn’t get any better. It gets worse,” said Norm Hess, executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health.
“What’s different this time is this money. It’s not that people don’t agree that it’s a good plan,” he said. “It’s that we didn’t have this [American Recovery Act] money before.”
Separately, spending proposals from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers call for spending tens of millions of dollars to fix septics. The initiatives build on an earlier proposal by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to spend $35 million from the voter-approved Great Lakes Water Quality Bond to target failing septics, as part of a broader $500 million water spending strategy.
It’s likely some funding for septics will get legislative approval soon, said Rich Bowman, policy director with the Nature Conservancy’s Michigan chapter, which has worked with lawmakers and interest groups to advocate for septic repair assistance funding.
“The challenge is not necessarily the money at this point,” Bowman said. “The challenge is somebody’s got to figure out how to do it.”
Bowman said the conservancy plans to establish pilot septic assistance programs in a few health departments as a model for a statewide program.
The efforts follow “decades of disinvestment,” Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy told Bridge Michigan.
Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, who in June introduced a spending bill that mirrors Whitmer’s septic plan, noted that “clean drinking water and taking care of our environment aren’t partisan issues.”
Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, a sponsor of the forthcoming Democratic funding proposal, attributed the bipartisan support to a recognition that climate change is straining Michigan’s infrastructure, from septic systems and sewers to roads and bridges.
“People are literally seeing it in their neighborhoods,” she said.
That’s not mud
This year’s funding ideas follow past attempts to establish a statewide sanitary code for Michigan — efforts that failed in part because of fears that robust septic oversight would force residents to make costly repairs.
Common in rural areas without municipal water treatment plants, septics are private wastewater disposal systems that capture household sewage in an underground tank, where solids settle to the bottom and liquids slowly disperse into the soil.
That slow percolation is meant to strip fecal bacteria, viruses and household toxics, leaving clean water behind. But if septic systems fail — and in some cases even when they work as designed — they can leach polluted water into nearby aquifers, lakes and streams.
“When you talk of somebody who has that muddy backyard, that’s not water. That’s sewage,” said Andrew Cox, health officer for the Macomb County Health Department. “You don’t want to walk through it and you don’t want it.”
Michigan is the only state without a statewide sanitary code, which makes quantifying the extent of the problem difficult.
Federal figures put the nationwide failure rate at 10 percent. But localized studies in Michigan show far greater cause for concern.
West of Lansing, the Barry-Eaton County Health Department in 2018 flagged 1 in 4 septic systems for potential problems.
In Macomb, 6,126 septic systems were inspected from 2014 to 2020, and 931 septic systems, or about 15 percent, were deemed “failing.” The issues ranged from laundry waste discharging into the ground, malfunctioning pumps or pump alarms and broken septic tank lids. In all, 412 systems needed to be replaced or connected to a sanitary sewer, according to the county health department.
In Ingham County in 2018, a review of a decade of inspections found that 13 percent of septic systems inspected as properties changed owners were “at or near failure.” Others were discharging sewage into farm tile, had a septic tank in disrepair or were discharging waste somewhere along the plumbing supporting the system, according to data provided to Bridge.
Septic systems are like cars in that, if well maintained, can work efficiently, said Cox, of the Macomb County Health Department.
When they’re not, solid waste builds up, plugging the system, saturating the ground and releasing pollution into waterways.
Replacing a system can cost between $15,000 to $25,000 — which is difficult for many families, Cox said.
“We definitely need more resources for people to be able to maintain their systems,” said Kerry Ott, spokesperson for the LMAS District Health Department. The department covers Luce, Mackinac, Alger and Schoolcraft counties in the eastern Upper Peninsula, where the vast majority of residents are on septics.
Michigan State University researchers who tested 64 Michigan waterways discovered that those with the most nearby septics had the highest levels of human fecal bacteria.
“If we keep neglecting our wastewater,” said Joan Rose, a Michigan State University microbiologist who led the study, “then down the road we’re going to have more contaminated waters that we can’t use.”
A 2018 report from Public Sector Consultants found that watersheds throughout Gratiot, Clinton and Montcalm counties, where nearly 60 percent of homes are on septic systems, teemed with unsafe levels of human waste.
Fecal bacteria such as E. coli can make swimmers sick. So can the viruses humans shed in their urine and feces. And the nutrients carried on septic effluent can fuel excess plant growth and toxic algae blooms.
Improperly located septics are also a problem, Rose said.
Consider southeast Michigan lake communities that have transformed in recent decades from rural to suburban, she said. Many homes on those lakes are still on septics, even though the shorelines are now densely-packed with development. In some cases, the drain fields are next to the water, allowing pollutants to seep directly into the lake.
“In these high density areas,” Rose said, “we should be thinking about hooking up (to public wastewater systems).”
In sparsely-populated areas where septics are the only viable option, Rose said, replacing old, failing septics with new models that do a better job of stripping pollutants can protect water quality.
Bowman of The Nature Conservancy called the proposed spending “a huge help.” But he urged lawmakers to find money in the state’s budget to sustain water assistance programs long-term.
Otherwise, he said, local health departments could be forced to staff up to administer loan programs that won’t last more than a few years.
“If we spend it wrong,” he said, “we could create an even worse fiscal cliff than we have now.”
No statewide plan
Macomb is among health departments in 10 counties around the state that require a septic inspection before a property is sold, according to officials with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
But because Michigan lacks a sanitary code, there is no standard enforcement of septic system inspection or remediation.
Past attempts to create a uniform code for Michigan have failed – most recently, a pair of 2018 bills sponsored by Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn, and former Rep. James Lower, R-Cedar Lake.
Meanwhile, concerns about cost have stymied efforts to connect community wastewater systems in densely-populated lakeshore communities where septics are a problem.
The Republican and Democrat funding proposals would cover loans to aid in that process, too.
Loan programs can help hesitant landowners fix or disconnect their failing septics, but Rose said Michigan still needs a statewide code to make sure all of the state’s wastewater systems are better regulated.
Nick Occhipinti, state government affairs director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said he doesn’t expect a new sanitary code bill to emerge this legislative session, but it will likely resurface in the future.
“Everyone recognizes this is the problem,” Occhipinti said. “And we have not found the coalition or the policies that will unite enough stakeholders to get it over the table.”
Catch more news on Great Lakes Now:
Featured image: Sewer pipes (Great Lakes Now Episode 1013)