Impact of septic systems

February 1, 2017

 

State environmental regulators estimate there are about 1.3 million on-site wastewater, or septic, systems operating in the state of Michigan, with 10 percent or more of those failing to work properly. In total, the state estimates about 31 million gallons of wastewater from toilets and drains not being treated properly are affecting our waterways and groundwater.

With some 80,000 or more septic systems in the ground in Oakland County, one could estimate about 8,000 of those are failing to adequately treat the raw sewage coming from toilets and drains. Yet, because of a lack of any statewide or local requirement to routinely inspect and inventory the systems, the exact number, location and condition of underground septic systems are unknown.

"In general, a failing septic can affect surface water quality and groundwater quality, as well as the physical quality of having sewage on the ground if you're not near a lake or stream," said Mark Hansell, chief environmental health of the Oakland County Health Division. "Sewage is known to carry many viruses and health hazards that require corrective action. It may also impact areas on drinking water wells."

Beyond the obvious signs of a failing septic system, such as a backup of sewage into a home or the presence and odor of human waste, failing septics can lead to numerous health and environmental hazards.

Sewage from failing septics may taint drinking water wells, aquifers and other drinking water sources, leading to dysentery, meningitis, hepatitis, typhoid fever, and other illnesses. Nitrates from failing septics pose particular threats to infants, such as methemoglobinemia, or "blue baby" syndrome, which interferes with the blood's ability to carry oxygen. 

Failing septics also are one of the most frequently reported causes of groundwater contamination. Failing septics may also result in beach closings caused by high levels of E.coli; excessive algae and aquatic plant growth; fish consumption restrictions; and bacterial and viral infections from contact with contaminated recreational waterways.

In Oakland County, Hansell said there are at least 80,000, and possibly as many as 100,000 septic systems in operation, many of which are in the northern and west sections of the county, including some homes in Bloomfield Township and the Rochester/Rochester Hills area, that lack sewer connections. Exactly how many of those systems are failing is not known.

Annually, the health division conducts about 130 inspections that are based on complaints, mostly from residents bothered by the smell of raw sewage. Those inspections typically include water or wells for high levels of bacteria nutrients, or adding a dye to the system to see if water from the system surfaces.

"Oakland County doesn't have a mandated inspection program for existing sewage disposal systems. Once it's in the ground and past the permitting process, there isn't anything to require inspections," Hansell said. "Through recent revisions in our sanitary code, it is required that those systems that are engineered with advanced treatment have to have at least annual inspections of the treatment device and the functionality of the drain field."

Oakland County's code isn't unique in its lack of an inspection requirement. Only 11 other health departments in the state require septic system inspections. Further, Michigan is the only state without a law that specifically regulates septics. Instead, county health departments throughout the state are tasked with regulating septic systems through local codes, resulting in a patchwork of regulatory measures throughout the state.

"Michigan is still one of the only states in the nation without a sanitary septic code. There are a number of counties that have them, but they vary from county to county," said Jon Allan, director of the Office of the Great Lakes, which leads policy development and implements programs to protect watersheds under the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).

While septic systems in the state are regulated to some degree through local sanitary codes, focus has been largely on sitting and construction of new systems instead of maintenance, system performance or condition.

"Generally what we are seeing as septic systems get old and properties transfer ownership, is that they may not get attended to or maintained and fixed, and a number of systems may be failing," Allan said. "It's one of these 'out-of-sight, out-of-mind' things. These systems sort of chuck away and do what they do, until they don't. When they fail, and we distribute waste back into the environment – in this case, one home at a time – they put a risk on the whole community. You transfer that risk into the ground water, into the streams, lakes and rivers. E.coli and septics have a lot to do with each other, particularly with failing septics."

Ted Loudon, a water consultant and professor emeritus in water and soil related research at Michigan State University, said some nutrients from failing septics may spread from one site and contaminate an entire drinking water aquifer under some soil conditions. That happens, he said, when contaminants reach soils that are saturated by the water table, and nutrients enter the water of an aquifer that is naturally moving underground.

"Usually septic systems are built above the water table, but once it gets in the saturated zone, and that water is moving, it's much less predictable," he said. "Nitrate and nitrogen are soluble in water, where some of the other bacteria usually gets filtered out through the soil. It really depends on soil conditions."

A study by a team of Michigan State University water research scientists into the presence of fecal bacteria in 64 rivers in Michigan's lower peninsula, including several in Oakland County, found levels of E.Coli and and B. thetaiotaomicron (a bacteria associated with human feces) were highest in watersheds with the most number of septic systems. The study's results, which were published in a 2015 report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found septic systems to be the primary driver of human fecal bacteria levels in each watershed studied, particularly those with more than 1,621 septic systems.

Joan Rose, an internationally recognized expert in water microbiology who lead the study, said while septic systems are controlled at the county level, the study looked at the total number of septic systems in an entire watershed, rather than governmental boundaries. Further, she said, the study measured levels of both animal and very specific human markers, or indicators.

"We've been trying to find source markers to say where (bacteria) is coming from, but you never really had good markers until the last decade," she said. "In the past few years, we have been able to prove these markers are very specific, so when you get a positive result, we are very sure. We are 99.9 percent sure it's coming from humans. It comes from human feces."

While rivers and watersheds, or the system of land and tributaries that drain into a river, don't follow municipal or county boundaries, Rose and her colleagues compiled information about septics systems, municipal wastewater treatment facilities, hydrology, and landscapes from each county to provide a view of each watershed. They also sampled rivers at baseflow conditions, or when surface and groundwater conditions were lower, so that rain events wouldn't skew their findings.

The study of watersheds in Oakland County, including the Rouge, Clinton and Huron River watersheds, had some of the highest bacteria concentrations of E.coli and B. theta bacteria in the state, which ranged from less than .8 to more than 2.9 parts per 100 milliliters. E.coli samples ranged between 2.37 and 2.9 parts per 100 milliliters in the Rouge River Watershed, while the surrounding Clinton and Huron River watersheds had about 1.4 to 2.37 parts per 100 milliliters.

Concentrations of B.theta bacteria, which is linked specifically to human feces, ranged from less than 4.6 to more than 5.6 parts per 100 milliliters throughout the state. Locally, the highest levels, those above 5.6 milliliters, were found in the Huron River Watershed. The Rouge River Watershed and Clinton River Watershed had samples ranging from 5.2 to 5.6 parts per 100 milliliters. 

Rose said the study, and future research, may help us better understand the relationship between land use and water quality in Michigan and the country as we work to improve infrastructure, including where we locate, construct and how we maintain on-site wastewater treatment systems. 

"We are at the heart of water quality in the Great Lakes," she said. "I think what we are doing here now and what we do with our water strategy in the next five or 10 years, will be a nationally recognized center for addressing water quality."

Recently, Allan and the Office of the Great Lakes were tasked by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to establish a long-term water strategy plan for managing and protecting the waters of the state. Released in October of 2016, among the plan's key goals are to address the state's lack of a statewide sanitary code; secure a long-term funding source to complete an inventory and assessment of single-family home water supplies and septic systems; implement a statewide requirement for periodic septic inspections; and increase outreach campaigns to educate homeowners on septic management.

"Given the statewide nature of this, it makes a lot of sense to have the legislature put a policy statement out there and have the (MDEQ) respond," Allan said.

The plan calls on the MDEQ, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, local health departments, and the legislature to achieve those goals. However, similar efforts for more than a decade by lawmakers to tackle the issue of septic regulations on a statewide level have fallen flat. 

Since 2001, at least eight different proposals to address septic system regulations in the state have been pitched by lawmakers, with none of them making it to a vote in either chamber. In 2004, former Governor Jennifer Granholm announced a plan to protect the waters of the state that called for the development of a statewide code for on-site wastewater treatment systems. Despite the formation and input of a task force representing 26 organizations in the septic system industry, that plan failed to lead to any meaningful changes in the state's policy.

"Obviously, it's something that has been difficult to get traction in Michigan," Allan said. "Forty-nine other states have found a way to harmonize a statewide approach... it's a recommendation from the state's water strategy plan, and one we will continue to see some work done on."

The latest statewide effort to require septic inspections was introduced during the previous legislative session, in June of 2016, as a pair of combined bills, HB 5732 and HB 5733. Neither were voted out of committee.

Representative Julie Plawecki (D), of Dearborn Heights, died from a heart attack in the weeks following her bill's introduction. The companion bill, introduced by former Rep. Gretchen Driskell (D-Saline), was never taken up by committee. Together, the bills sought to create a statewide code for regulating septic systems, but would grant local departments the ability to cater their codes to specific needs. The pair of bills also proposed making $3 million in appropriations available to fund the program and establish a statewide database of septic systems. The continuation of the program would have been paid for through service fees.

The Michigan League of Conservation Voters has also called for statewide regulations to address failing septic systems.

"Michigan is the only state in the country without protections in place around household septic systems, which are believed to release 31 million gallons of sewage every day into our state's waterways," said Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. "We need common sense safeguards that protect the health of our communities and the safety of our water resources. A bi-partisan solution that addresses our failing septic systems can't come soon enough to prevent this threat to our rivers, lakes and streams."

The Michigan Environmental Council, which has said the percent of failing septics could be as high as 20 to 40 percent in some places, has long supported a statewide septic code, as well as the establishment of a statewide database system to track the location, age and condition of septic systems throughout the state.

"Over time, it kind of heats up as a legislative issue, and then it cools off," said James Clift, policy director for the council. "As we watch Lake Erie and the problems there, this clearly is one of the problems that could be leading to the nutrient loading, and with local lakes. It's attention is on the upswing, and we are looking for reintroduction of bills next year."

Saugatuck Republican and former state lawmaker Patricia Birkholz, who consults with the League of Conservation Voters and has also served as the previous director of the Office of the Great Lakes, sponsored four bills to address septic system regulations in the state while serving in the state Senate from 2002 to 2010. None of them were ever voted out of the Senate's committee on Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs.

"It's embarrassing for me, frankly as a legislator, but also for me as a citizen, to have been working on water – not only to swim and recreate in, but also to drink – and to see this continuing to be stopped in its tracks by homebuilders and realtors," she said about the lack of septic system regulations.

In 2004, the same year that Granholm called for action on a statewide septic ordinance, Birkholz introduced a bill in the Senate that would create a model ordinance that would identify septic systems at greatest risk of contaminating ground or surface waters; set standards on the placement of septic systems; and require septic inspections be done prior to a property being transferred at the time of its sale. The bill also proposed allowing the DEQ to use up to $5 million from the state's strategic water quality initiatives fund for grants to counties to conduct inspections.

Birkholz was serving as the Allegan County treasurer, prior to her first term in the Michigan House of Representatives in 1996, when she first became aware of the impact of failing septic systems when a couple came in to pay their taxes. During the course of their conversation, they told her the smell coming from the lake near their home they suspected of being polluted with sewage. She then contacted the county health department to try to assist the homeowners in the process of getting the lake tested. Eventually, Birkholz learned the lake was being contaminated by failing septic systems.

"If we don't have a lot of consistent rules or laws in place, then you have a lot of inconsistency and a lot of people, particularly in a down time or when a job has been cut back, that it's not the first thing they spend money on," Birkholz said. "It's not on the top of their priority list. Putting food on the table tends to be on the top of the list."

Birkholz re-introduced her initial bill in 2005, which also failed to gain support in committee in order to make it to the floor for consideration. 

In 2008, following the Great Recession of 2007 and a overall downturn in jobs in the state for four years prior to that, Birkholz introduced a new bill that would require inspections of all septic systems every 10 years, starting in 2010. A fiscal analysis of the bill found it would increase costs to local health departments for inspections, as well as a potential cost increase to the Michigan Department of Community Health, which provides funding to local health departments.

"When I introduced it a second time in the Senate, the economy was coming back and people were starting to buy properties," Birkholz said. "I was willing to give it a delayed start date, but they stopped me dead in my tracks."

Historically, the real estate industry in Michigan has opposed local and state regulations that require inspections before a property can be sold. Such requirements, critics have said, may cause a potential sale to sour, as replacing a septic system may cost anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000.

Brian Westrin, public policy and legislative affairs director for the Michigan Association of Realtors, said point-of-sale requirements don't address the overall intent of inspection requirements.

"Our historical position is the adoption of a statewide code that doesn't include a point of sale reference," he said, adding that the association was close to an agreement with Birkholz's second round of bills, which failed to get out of committee. "It should recognize that if you're going to have a statewide code, it should have to do with all properties, not just those that are going to be transferred."

Former Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner John McCulloch in the past had discussed efforts to enact a county-wide septic inspection ordinance that would require inspections when a property is sold. However, those efforts were met with strong opposition from the real estate industry.

Sarah Howes, legislative liaison for the MDEQ, said the department worked with Representative Plawecki on technical expertise for about a year prior to her bill being introduced. She said the department intends to continue working with legislators in an effort to address septic regulations, but there are multiple factors to consider in doing so.

In addition to establishing septic inspection requirements, a statewide ordinance must consider different types of septic systems that are available, and where each type may or may not be appropriate.

"It's not one size fits all," Howes said. "One of the most significant issues with a statewide approach is that Michigan is so diverse with its landscape. What works in Midland, for instance, where there are a lot of wetlands, may not work in Traverse City. How are we putting forth criteria and implementation that works in all of those different landscapes. I think that's a big issue."

In its basic form, traditional septic systems consist of watertight containers that are buried beneath the ground. Wastewater from the home enters a septic tank, which holds the sewage and allows for solid waste to settle to the bottom and form sludge. Oil and greases float to the top of the tank and form scum. The process allows for partial decomposition of solids before being filtered through a second compartment and into a contained sanitary drain field where the water is further filtered through soils, which helps to remove bacteria, viruses and nutrients.

Those systems may fail when there is an overflow of sewage or from various mechanical reasons, forcing raw sewage to be released from the system. For instance, when bacteria breaks down solid materials in the septic tank, residue is left behind that builds up over time. That residue must be removed from time to time to prevent it from entering the drainfield and clogging the system. Health departments recommend having traditional septic systems serviced and pumped out by a licensed operator every two to three years.

Even well-maintained systems have a limited lifespan. In general, a system should last between 12 to 15 years; however, some may need replacement several years sooner or later. Local sanitary codes, such as those in Oakland County, oversee the permitting of new septic systems.

Mark Hansell, who oversees the permitting process in Oakland County, said the vast majority of inspections done by the health department are conducted as part of the permitting process. The code dictates the type of soil that must be present in the system, the depth of the system in relation to groundwater, drinking water wells, nearby waterbodies, and other factors. The process may permit multiple inspections during the installation, ending with a final inspection to ensure the system meets minimum performance requirements.

"Occasionally we run into conditions that can't meet our code," Hansell said. "It could be poor soil conditions or the site location, and then an engineer may be involved to help design a system that can overcome those restrictive conditions."

Hansell said conditions such as too much clay or sandy soils that don't accept enough water to adequately provide filtration of a septic field are possible reasons for an engineered, or advanced septic system. Other restrictions, such as the proximity of a drinking water well, groundwater or other surface water bodies, could also require specially engineered systems.

"Advanced treatment, or what we call pretreatment, could be a mechanical filter that enhances filtration, and some of those mechanical processes do depend on continuing maintenance to function properly," Hansell said. "Those are typically used in situations were you have poor surface conditions."

Oakland County's sanitary code was most recently updated on November 15, 2016. Under the code, advanced septic systems must be inspected on an annual basis, while traditional systems have no inspection requirement other than that required at the time of installation. And, since the majority of septic systems in the county were installed prior to 2006, placement and maintenance information on most older systems aren't known.

Challenges in developing a statewide code must factor in the various types of soil conditions that are dominant in each county, as well as what types of systems would be permissible. 

Larry Stephens, of Stephens Consulting Services PC, in Haslett, Michigan, and former president of the Michigan On-Site Wastewater Recycling Association, said while a mandated inspection requirement is the driving force behind a statewide code, such a code needs to allow for variability in the types of systems available for use.

"There are so many variables that go into the day-to-day choices in regard to on-site system design and application that a standard prescriptive regulation isn't the way to go," he said. "But, there is a need for uniformity in practices and sciences, and better training and engineering of on-site systems, and groundwater movement. And, better overall accountability in all sectors of the industry. That can be part of uniform state regulations." 

Because codes vary so widely from county to county, advanced, engineered systems that have been proven to be effective in counties, like Oakland, aren't even permitted in some other counties. Likewise, best practices for maintenance also vary from county to county.

"It's a nightmare for manufacturers of advanced treatment products," Stephens said, noting that they must seek approval on a per-county basis in Michigan. "We don't get a lot of manufacturers that are willing to spend the effort in Michigan to go county by county to prove that their new product is a better way to go. So, that holds us back with new technology that is available."

Despite the lack of a statewide code, Stephens said the state on a whole has kept up to date on local codes.

"If you compare the state-of-the-art in Michigan to other states, I think Michigan doesn't have to hang its head by any stretch of the imagination," he said. "If you're suggesting that because we haven't had a statewide code that we have done things badly, that's not the conclusion I would jump to. But in some parts of the state, the regulations are too loose, and in other parts they are too conservative. So, they are done properly in one county, and improperly in another."

Stephens said the state, under a uniform ordinance, could provide a single source for approval of different systems and products, with each county further tailoring requirements to fit their specific needs.

In terms of new technology and ensuring those systems adhere to strict maintenance schedules, Stephens said Oakland County, as well as some surrounding counties, such as Livingston and Washtenaw, have been more aggressive than some. Still, he said statewide regulations for maintenance are needed.

"We have traditionally left maintenance of on-site systems in the hands of homeowners. Most people estimate there are 1.3 million to 1.5 million systems in Michigan. If you think about trying to train and convince and motivate 1.5 million people to educate themselves on how to maintain their systems, it just doesn't happen," he said. "We need some form of regulation that homeowners who need it are forced to have it done professionally."

Stephens also agrees that such inspection requirements should apply to all septic systems, not just at the time of sale of a property.

"That would only hit those homes that are sold, so it doesn't catch all the need and the problem," he said. "The best thing would probably be a statewide requirement that systems be inspected at a regular interval. Traditional systems, maybe every five years, and more advanced systems every year or every other year."

The cost to local health departments is another factor that has caused some in the past to oppose mandatory inspections across the state.

Hansell said Oakland County conducted about 780 septic inspections in 2016, with the majority of those done during initial permitting and construction processes.

"That is pretty steady. "We saw an increase (in construction) coming and we adjusted our resources to keep up with demand," he said of the inspection process, which he said is funded primarily through the county's general fund. "Our fees are very reasonable when compared to other counties. Actually, we are quite a bit lower."

Any new requirements to increase inspections, Hansell said, would require a significant increase in resources.

"That would unquestionably result in high fees," he said. "It would require some changes here as how to meet those challenges. Any state legislation has to be appropriately funded. It might be the Cadillac of programs, but it's not implementable without the appropriate funding behind it."

Cost to local health departments is a concern that was echoed by Meghan Swain, executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health.

"There's a concern if it would pre-empt local codes. It's not a one-size-fits all. Given we are surrounded by water, and there are different lakeside needs versus inland needs," she said. "In addition, it's expensive for health departments to 'stand up,' from a state perspective."

Tom Frazier, legislative liaison with the Michigan Townships Association, said a statewide effort to address failing septic system is a priority because it may address public health issues and ease the need for townships to construct expensive public sewer systems.

"The issue has been around for a decade or more," he said. "I'm not sure going forward where things are at. It's kind of a priority with our association, and it's a priority with the current governor, but after the last election there seems to be a focus on cutting regulations, so it's questionable what the legislature may do with this type of legislation in the near future."

Another challenge that legislators proposing a statewide code may face, Howes with the MDEQ said, is pushback from property rights advocates.

"Another concerned voice is just citizens rights to private property, as far as mandating or requiring some sort of frequency of inspection when this is a system that is owned by a private citizen on private property," she said. "The diversity of stakeholder groups that are impacted by this, and finding some agreement that everyone feels is effective while not overburdensome regulations is a challenge. It's kind of a mix of all of those.

"We are hopeful to see a change. It's something we would like to see in place. The main focus is the pollution factor in lakes and streams, and trying to deter that from occurring."

Despite the challenges in creating a statewide code, it is important to note that 49 other states have discovered a way to do so, including those with varying land and water resources. In Wisconsin, all septic systems are required to be inspected every three years. In Maryland, inspections are required annually. And in Minnesota, inspections are required every three years for traditional systems, and every six months or annually for advanced systems.

Additionally, 65 counties in Minnesota require septic inspections at the time of a sale of a property, said Sara Heger, a leading water research engineer at the University of Minnesota and chair of that state's advisory committee on on-site wastewater treatment systems.

"There are some things that are one size fits all, but some politics get in the way," she said. "Everything to treat under 10,000 gallons a day is permitted through the state." Heger said the state's administrative rules have been set up to allow for some variation from location to location, while maintenance requirements of systems doesn't lend itself to the same type of flexibility. Likewise, there's variations in enforcement and tracking abilities.

"Every county will say you need to maintain your system, but do they have a tracking system and ability to do enforcement? Enforcement is still a challenge in Minnesota," she said. "There are a couple counties that can write a ticket, but what other options do they have? Having some enforcement tools built into the rules is really helpful.

"Education is also important, but you need to have both the carrot and the stick. Usually septics are very low on the list of what people want to spend money on."

Tom Frazier, legislative liaison with the Michigan Townships Association, said the association is in support of standards that would reduce the potential of septic system failures.

"When we have septic systems that are potentially failing, they create not only a public health threat, but require townships to build expensive public sewer systems," he said. "It's in our best interest and our members' interests that they are maintained and they aren't failing."

The notion that public sewer systems will eventually keep pace with development is no longer a realistic expectation.

"The goal during urban expansion was to extend sewer to residents as populations were going north and west, but that occurred way faster than the sewers," said Hansell, with the Oakland County Health Department. "The new mantra now is 'sewer is not coming.'" 

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