Northern Michigan Septic Systems and Freshwater Resources


Do you know what a septic tank is? Do you know if your property has one? If so, have you thought about your septic installation lately?

Septic tanks are underground structures that work with natural processes to treat wastewater before it is reintroduced into the ground and surface water systems that make up our precious freshwater resources. Septic systems are out of sight, and often out of mind, which is good when they’re working properly. However, if not properly maintained or used beyond their lifespan, septic systems can wreak havoc on homeowners and surrounding water resources.

Signs that your system isn’t working properly include gurgling sounds in your toilet or pipes, strong odors, and a buildup of water or lush vegetation above your drain field.

In Michigan, 35% of residents rely on septic systems, and the percentage is even higher in rural areas, such as northern Michigan. That means there are between 1.3 and 1.4 million septic systems on site across the state, and each system generates an average of 300 to 400 gallons of wastewater per day. This means Michigan’s onsite systems must treat and dispose of more than 455 million gallons of wastewater every day.

When septic leachate is not properly treated, it can introduce nutrients, bacteria, viruses, pharmaceuticals and other pollutants into our lakes, streams, wetlands and groundwater. These contaminants can pose health risks, as well as environmental impacts like increased plant and algae growth along our shorelines.

Michigan public health officials estimate that reported septic system failures are only a fraction of the total number of failures statewide, and many go undetected or reported for years. Studies from Michigan State University suggest that at least a third of septic systems are not working properly.

The good news is that proactive maintenance of your septic system can not only protect the drinking water supply and the environment, but also protect your investment and save you money. Faulty systems can cost between $3,000 and $10,000 to repair or replace, and costs can be higher, up to $20,000, depending on the type of septic system and the absorption field and size of the tank. septic tank. In comparison, maintenance costs for septic systems typically range from around $250 to $500 every three to five years.

Michigan is the only state in the nation without uniform standards for the design, construction, installation and maintenance of on-site septic systems. Therefore, local government oversight is essential to take action to address local concerns about the performance of septic systems. Local governments are responsible for maintaining the general health, safety and well-being of their communities, and ensuring the proper maintenance of septic systems is an important part of that job.

The Watershed Council is grateful to announce that we have received a generous grant to raise awareness of these issues and to build support for policies and regulations that will protect public health, property owners’ investments and our shared water resources. These efforts build on the work of Dr. Grenetta Thomassey (former Director of Watershed Policy for the Watershed Council), the Northwestern Michigan Department of Health, and countless community partners on the Septic Question Report series.

Policy options include mandatory inspection orders, time of transfer or point-of-sale orders (requiring inspections when property is transferred or sold), and short-term rental provisions, among others. For some communities, a centralized sewage system or community group system may be the best solution.

Watershed Council staff, together with our community partners, will present policy opportunities for monitoring septic systems at local government meetings in Emmet and County Antrim this year. We’ve also created a guide to proper septic system maintenance for homeowners and a number of other documents and resources on the subject. Please visit us at our Petoskey office to pick up copies of these documents.

If you would like to learn more or request a presentation at a local government meeting, please contact [email protected] or 231-347-1181.

— Kacey Cook is a policy specialist for Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council.


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