“On-site wastewater treatment system” is the technical term used for any technology that manages wastewater, including the commonly termed septic systems. Septic systems are very prevalent in rural areas including many homes that are not hooked up to a central sewer system. On-site wastewater systems are usually buried under the ground in the homes yard. This system has a drain field that slowly releases wastewater out into the soil. These systems are both economic and environmentally efficient when properly managed. However, they suffer from one large problem that is more human than technical. This problem could be characterized as “out of sight, out of mind.” On-site wastewater systems require drainage every three years and should have a maintenance checkup at least as often as every ten years. Since these systems are often buried underground, they are forgotten and the owner never remembers to have either of these issues addressed.
This problem is very relevant in Michigan as we have one of the highest number of on-site wastewater systems in the United States at more then 1.3 million systems. Not only does Michigan have the highest number of systems but also half of all homes built in the state are accompanied by an on-site wastewater management system. Many states have taken measures to address this issue by creating a statewide regulation. If the homeowner fails to meet the states standards, they incur a fine. Below is a chart of Great Lakes states and their individual state septic regulation standard.
Figure 1 Source: Researched with assistance of Tip of the Mitt
As of 2016, every state except Michigan has established some form of statewide regulation. An estimated 65 gallons of untreated wastewater dump into the environment every day due to failing septic systems in Michigan. Recently, Michigan State University investigated contamination in open source water systems including lakes, streams, and rivers. This investigation used source-tracking markers to locate what areas had an increase in indicators of human waste. The results of this investigation found 32 out of 36 systems containing traces of E.coli. All the 36 systems studied had evidence of B-theta, which is a more specific indicator of human fecal contamination. There is particular concern that this can also contaminate nearby residences that use well water. Michiganders whom pride themselves on “Pure Michigan” are concerned.
For years Michigan has attempted to pass legislation concerning the issue of on-site wastewater treatment systems. During Governor Granholm’s administration, a wastewater task force was assembled to write a report on failing septic systems. This Task Force concluded that there was a growing problem and called for legislation that would establish statewide regulation. Recently, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality released their Great Lakes Water Strategy, which calls for a statewide regulation of on-site wastewater treatment systems. This has not been tackled by the legislature as of yet. A bill is being drafted by Representative Plawecki requiring maintenance every 10 years or upon the sale of the house. This will allow the state to not only require maintenance but to also start building a database of all the on-site wastewater treatment systems in Michigan. There are many opposition forces in the capital that see a statewide regulation as a hindrance. Realtors in Michigan see this legislation as another requirement and cost for homeowners to meet when attempting to sell their house. Another real hurdle for legislation is that 13 of the 83 counties in Michigan already require inspections of on-site wastewater treatment systems. These counties feel that they would be burdened with the initial cost of statewide regulation even though they have handled the systems in their county appropriately. This concern can be addressed. The current legislation does go through great lengths to spell out what the costs are and where they can come from. Those who see a statewide code as beneficial, point out that even county legislation can be out of date and local communities do not feel pressure to update. Environmentalists are concerned about contamination as Michigan begins to push the use of its waterways as a form of recreation. Stakeholders must continue to be active in the bill making process in order to produce a quality regulation standard that won’t leave local communities with another economic burden.
Michigan is under a lot of pressure after the recent Flint water crisis. The Michigan government cannot afford to receive more negative publicity. The state of Michigan and the Michigan Department of Environment Quality (MDEQ) need to concentrate on their original calling of preserving and protecting the environment and creating a “Pure Michigan.” Whether Michigan will begin to move back to this original focus will depend on strong leadership in the administration, the MDEQ, and the legislature. The legislature needs to consider the problems concerning on-site wastewater treatment systems as addressed in MDEQ’s Great Lakes Water Strategy and pass the bill to regulate these systems. The recent study conducted by Michigan State University that shows definitive evidence that we have a serious failing systems problem, MDEQ’s Great Lakes Water Strategy, and the general statewide attitude in favor of the need to protect our waters, provide substantial reasons why this legislation should pass. It is time for Michigan to join the rest of the states and adopt a statewide code.
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Wyckoff, Mark. "NEW ON-SITE WASTEWATER TREATMENT POLICY ALSO NEEDS TO ADDRESS POTENTIAL FOR SPRAWL." PZN. PZN. Web. 28 Feb. 2016