Article courtesy of Nicholas Occhipinti | October 16, 2015 | Grand Haven Tribune | Shared as educational material
A groundbreaking report in August was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by a team of Michigan State University researchers.
The MSU team tested 64 river systems in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and found that 100 percent of the rivers were contaminated by human fecal matter, and that household septic tanks were a major source.
According to the draft Michigan Water Strategy, our state has more than 1.3 million on-site wastewater (septic) systems. A high percentage of them are failing or not functioning properly. This is in part due to the fact that only 11 of Michigan’s 83 counties actually require inspections of these systems.
Disturbingly, the counties that do require inspections, and that have gathered data on the subject, are reporting that around 10 percent of septic systems are failing — with one county reporting a failure rate of 23 percent.
It has been very difficult to identify and pinpoint the source of water pollution that does not originate from a single location. This is called “non-point source” pollution. Wastewater treatment plants, farms, animal feed operations, stormwater runoff, atmospheric deposition, septic systems and even animals are all considered likely non-point source suspects.
For years, water quality managers have been left to wonder which farms, cities or suburbs are the most problematic. With such a wide range of potential contaminating sources, watershed managers and elected officials have had difficulty knowing where to direct limited capacity and resources.
Scientists have long tested for E.coli as an indicator of water quality, but only the most advanced tests have begun to shed light on the source of the pollution. Therefore, in addition to E.coli, the MSU team tested for B.theta (bacteroides thetaiotaomicron), a bacterial marker indicating human microbial pollution. The team determined that not only was human fecal bacteria present in all 64 river systems, but “the total number of people on septic tanks equates to the level of feces entering each watershed, and these levels are potentially dominated by failing septic systems contributing high concentrations of bacteria to nearby water systems.”
Additionally, by testing the rivers under base flow conditions, the researchers were able to rule out wastewater treatment plants as a driving factor of contamination.
The state recognizes that septics are a water quality concern. As reported in this column previously, septics have been identified in the state’s Draft Water Strategy as a priority issue to address. The state’s Draft Water Strategy includes four recommendations to address septics in Michigan:
(1) Develop and implement a uniform statewide sanitary code.
(2) Establish a long-term sustainable funding source; assist financially distressed owners of private on-site wastewater systems with repair and replacement costs.
(3) Establish inspection requirements for residential systems.
(4) Develop education campaigns and outreach tools directed at homeowners.
Researchers, water quality managers and health department officials have long identified troubled septic systems as both an environmental health hazard and a water quality problem. But that further begs the question: How did things get so bad?
Michigan is currently the only state without a specific, uniform, statewide law governing household septic systems. The regulations we do have pertain mostly to siting and installation — as opposed to system condition and performance.
Michigan’s lack of regulatory policy in this arena is not for want of trying. Legislation has been introduced and failed in the past for a host of reasons — many of which remain today.
Replacing a failing septic system could cost between $15,000 and $20,000. Many homeowners, particularly those in economically challenged rural areas, simply don’t have the money to make such a repair. Additionally, many will purchase a home with little or no knowledge of the condition of the system. Anecdotal reports suggest that some homeowners don’t even realize they are on a septic system. Septic systems are out of site and out of mind. If the toilet flushes and nothing backs up or bubbles up in the backyard, for many that is sufficient evidence that a system is functioning.
Politics, of course, are an issue as well. Regulations impacting a homeowner’s property — particularly given the sensitive subject matter — can be considered quite intrusive. Inspection regimes at the time of a property’s sale have the advantage of protecting the buyer, and occur at a time when mortgages are established and capital is available; however, a robust testing regime and a failing system could certainly be a detriment to the sale. These types of policies are often opposed by Realtors.
Finally, with the current patchwork of county regulations and data, there is no centralized database indicating where septic systems are located. That makes it quite challenging for those water, health and environmental quality managers to address watershed pollution issues.
The strong and specific results of the MSU study led its authors to make some very strong statements about septics and water quality in Michigan: “This study provides a path forward to assess and ultimately improve water quality at large scales. … The influence of septic systems in riparian zones also indicates that additional localized control measures, including septic maintenance and construction, should be implemented to protect water quality and human health.”
We should heed their advice.
There are rumblings from Lansing that the Snyder administration and a number of legislators are working on statewide septic legislation. That is good news. Let’s get it done this time.
— By Nicholas Occhipinti, Tribune community columnist and director of policy and community activism for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council