As many as 1.9 million gallons of sewage each day may be leaking into the ground, rivers, lakes and streams throughout Oakland County from unchecked septic systems.
That estimate, which some believe may be on the low end, is based on findings that about 10 percent of all septic systems in Michigan are currently failing. Statewide, the Department of Environmental Quality has said as many as 31 million gallons of wastewater from household and commercial septic systems are leaking into the ground each day.
Admittedly, those numbers are rough estimates based, in part, on the number of failing septic systems found in other states. The Michigan Environmental Council, a coalition of more than 70 organizations in the state, said the percentage of failing septic systems in some states have been found to be as high as 20 to 40 percent. The fact is, the actual number of septic systems in the state isn't known – let alone the number that are failing.
What is known, and with far greater accuracy, is that human waste, not just feces from farm and wild animals, is contributing to the pollution of our rivers and watersheds in Oakland County. And that septic systems are contributing to that pollution to a much greater degree than believed in the past decade. That knowledge came in a very specific study of the amount of bacteria linked specifically to human feces that was found in 64 different rivers in Michigan.
The researchers that presented this new knowledge include a globally-recognized water researcher at Michigan State University, who said bacteria was highest in watersheds that have about 1,600 known septic systems or more. Oakland County health officials believe there are between 80,000 and 100,000 septic systems in the county.
Further, researchers said the study takes into account the contribution of human feces from municipal wastewater treatment plants connected to public sewer systems and overflow from combined sewer and stormwater systems caused by heavy rains or flooding by sampling rivers at "baseflow conditions," or a river at its driest point, or low flow times.
The study confirms what many throughout the state have suspected for decades: routine inspections of septic systems are needed in all areas of the state. The need was recently stated in the governor's water strategy plan as a priority to protect sources of drinking and recreational waters that are integral to Michigan's health and economy. It's the same need stated in 2004 by former Governor Jennifer Granholm, and in nearly a dozen proposed laws that failed to ever make it to a vote by state lawmakers in those years.
Despite the need to address leaking septic systems, Michigan remains the only state in the nation that doesn't have a statewide septic code in place. Experience tells us while the state legislature should address the problem of leaking septics, it's doubtful it will pass a law to do so, nor appropriate the funding needed to implement a statewide plan.
To date, the responsibility of regulating septic systems has fallen upon the counties through local sanitary codes passed by county commissions and enforced by county health departments.
While Oakland County has made some much needed changes to its health code to address a small portion of septic systems that are at most risk of failure, there remains a need to address tens of thousands of other on-site wastewater treatment systems. The county must now begin work on updating its code to ensure all septic systems are located, inventoried and inspected on a routine basis, and then create ordinances to require inspections.
Health officials say traditional septic systems should be inspected every three to five years, at a minimum. In practice, few homeowners with septic systems adhere to a routine inspection schedule, opting instead to wait until problems force them to shell out money for repairs or replacement.
While the ideal course of action would be for the state legislature to address the septic system problem, there has been little movement on this issue in Lansing. Therefore, Oakland County Commissioners now have the opportunity to address septic system issues.
An appropriate first step would be to work with local municipalities that should have data on where septics are located based on existing sewer connections.
Then the septic code should be updated to require inspections are conducted every three years for traditional septic systems. Advanced engineered septic systems in the county are already required to be inspected at least annually.
Although enacting a new code that will address septic systems in Oakland County may pose some additional challenges, we believe the time is long overdue for the county to address the issue and protect the health and environment of the county.