Hundreds of Thousands of Failing Septic Systems Contributing to an Ongoing Major Public Health Issue in Michigan

By November 2, 2021 News

Attributed in large part to the fact that Michigan is the only state that does not require regular septic systems inspections, and that only eleven out of eighty three counties in Michigan have established local regulations that require regular septic systems inspections, hundreds of thousands of failing septic tanks in Michigan are acting as a major source of e-coli and human fecal bacteria laden raw sewage that contaminates ground water, and renders the waters of many our lakes, rivers, and streams unfit for total contact water sports such as swimming or snorkeling. The steadily escalating environmental and public health associated problem is derived from that fact that approximately 20%, or 280,000, of the 1.4 million septic tanks that were constructed in the 1950’s and 1960’s throughout Michigan in order to enable the use of indoor toilets that served as much needed replacement for the “outhouses” that were once a common site on millions of family farms in America, are now failing. The problem has also been exacerbated by the fact that many Michigan homes, and their now severely antiquated septic systems were built prior to the construction of sewer systems that now serve even the smallest of towns and villages.

In Kent County, for example, where the health department has only a volunteer septic systems inspection program in place, an estimated 11, 250 failing residential septic systems distributed throughout the county leak approximately one million gallons of raw sewage into vulnerable groundwater supplies each day. In inland lake inundated Oakland County, as another prime example, where public health threatening cases of e-coli contamination of rivers and lakes are reported on a more and more frequent basis, and where county officials have also yet to establish a program that would mandate regular septic system inspections, approximately twenty-five to thirty percent of the 100,000 septic systems located in Michigan’s most affluent county are known to be leaking. The gravity of the situation is also effectively illustrated by the fact that the results of a 2015 study conducted by Michigan State University researchers on sixty-four Michigan rivers revealed that concentrations of e-coli that were higher than U. S. Environmental Protection Agency permitted water quality standards. The significance of the issue is also amplified by the fact that the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lake, and Energy (EGLE) reports that approximately one half of Michigan’s thousands of miles of rivers and streams suffer from concentrations of toxic e-coli that exceed minimum water quality standards.

Representing a major environmental and public health issue that promises to escalate in significance as increasing numbers of septic systems fail and begin to leak with the passage of time, past efforts to enact legislation that would have established a meaningful statewide standard for how septic tanks are designed, built, inspected, and maintained have sadly disintegrated in the face of arguments suggesting that in addition to treading on individual property rights, regulating septic tanks in a manner that would require regular inspections and maintenance in order to help minimize their capacity to pollute Michigan’s freshwater treasures would be too costly for homeowners, over burden local health departments, and make it more difficult to sell homes.

It is important to note that Michigan Governor Whitmer recognize the significance of the problem and accordingly, declared the week of September 20-24, 2021 as Septic Smart Week  that encouraged homeowners and communities to properly maintain their increasingly vulnerable septic systems. While it is not very likely that the Michigan state legislature will overcome its concerns for treading on individual property rights, and act to pass a statewide standard for effectively regulating septic systems anytime soon, both Governor Whitmer and Senator Jon Bumstead have proposed dedicating $35 million of this year’s state budget to enable the establishment and funding of an MDEQ administered program that would make low interest loans available to homeowners seeking to repair, replace, or eliminate leaking residential septic systems.

For more information on how failing septic systems are capable of degrading our precious freshwater resources, visit the U. S. EPA’s web page entitled “How Your Septic System Can Impact Nearby Water Sources” .  The always wise, inland lakes preservation focused folks from northwest Lower Michigan’s Glen Lake Association have also created a septic smart webpage that contains valuable information regarding the proper maintenance of septic systems.