Waste in the water ‒ why Michigan needs a state septic code

Roughly half of Michigan’s rivers and streams exceed safety standards for E. coli bacteria, yet we are the only state without a uniform septic code. (stock photo)

Dr. Joan Rose is an international expert on water microbiology, water quality and public health safety. She co-directs Michigan State University’s Center for Advancing Microbial Risk Assessment and Center for Water Sciences.

In September, Isabella County Commissioners approved a resolution in favor of ensuring that a home’s septic system is inspected before it is sold.

Why are people pushing for these new inspections?

Because Michigan’s rivers, lakes and streams ‒ including the Chippewa River in Isabella County ‒ are facing alarming levels of contamination from human fecal bacteria and viruses, some that are dangerous.

In fact, the State of Michigan estimates that roughly half of its rivers and streams exceed the safety standard for concentrations of E. coli bacteria.

Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a type of bacteria that serves as a key water quality indicator.  Because E. coli grows naturally in the gastrointestinal tract of warm-blooded animals and humans, its presence in a water sample tells us that fecal pollution has reached that water source by some means.

Furthermore, it suggests that additional dangerous pathogens may be present in the water as well, where they can infect humans through ingestion or skin contact. Diseases such as gastroenteritis, giardia, hepatitis, and cholera can all be spread this way.

What does this have to do with septic systems? Septic systems are a form of onsite sewage treatment common in rural Michigan communities, homes surrounding lakes, and throughout some suburban communities as well.

Household wastewater is sent to a large tank, where anaerobic bacteria break some of it down before allowing the water to flow out of the system into a drainfield for further filtration by the soil.

We have presumed that on-site wastewater disposal systems, such as septic tanks, were working, that they were effectively filtering our sewage.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests otherwise ‒ septic systems are contaminating our rivers, lakes and streams.

Research conducted by my MSU lab and released in 2015, found that septic systems in Michigan are not preventing E. coli and other fecal bacteria from reaching our water supplies. Our MSU team sampled 64 river systems, systems that drain approximately 84 percent of the Lower Peninsula, for E. coli and the human-specific source tracking marker bacteria called B-theta.

We performed stream sampling under what’s known as “baseflow” conditions, which allowed us to focus in on the bacteria entering the stream from the surrounding groundwater. Using this approach allowed us to look at how pollution could be coming specifically from the groundwater, rather than from surface runoff from storm events.

Our research found a clear correlation: The more septic systems in the watershed, the more human fecal source tracking bacteria in the water.

If we want to keep E. coli and other pathogens out of our waterways, we need to address the problem of septic systems that may be failing to adequately treat our wastewater.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) estimates there are 130,000 failing systems currently operating in Michigan. That represents about 1-in-10 of more than 1.3-million systems installed statewide.

DEQ further estimates that Michigan’s numerous failing septic systems release  upwards of 31 million gallons of raw sewage every day into our groundwater.

Sometimes a failing septic system is obvious to the homeowner and is repaired or replaced quickly. But system failures can also easily go unnoticed and unrepaired for years.

What can be done? Despite the tremendous public health threat posed by these failing systems, Michigan is the only state in the country without a uniform septic code.

A statewide septic code would set basic standards to govern how on-site sewage treatment systems are designed, built, installed and maintained for the long term.

But while the state has failed to address the problem, 11 counties have enacted their own septic codes with varying requirements and degrees of protection.

State legislators in Lansing have debated the need for a statewide, uniform septic code dating back to 2004, but have come up short.

Fortunately, there is a bipartisan effort in the works that may at last put this commonsense safeguard in place for our clean water. Until then, beware that that beautiful northern Michigan stream may not be quite as pure as you’d expect in Pure Michigan.

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Steve Williams
Tue, 11/14/2017 - 8:43am

Good work Dr. Rose. Showing the nexus between the waters of the state and septic drainfields provides a basis for state standards. To this point, this issue has been considered a local matter with mixed results, mostly less than needed to protect the environment. The key then is to have reasonable standards that can be enforced.

Jim Hegarty, PE
Tue, 11/14/2017 - 8:57am

Even properly designed and installed septic systems pollute groundwater. They pollute starting on day one. Think of all the household chemicals people dump down their drains. And the nitrates (nutrients) not removed in the drainfield. The biggest problem with septic systems is allowing them in new 'suburban' developments--some serving more than 50 homes--because it's too expensive for developers to extend sewer lines.

Tue, 11/14/2017 - 11:56am

And very few could afford the homes! But forget the new homes! The number of older homes with long ago failed (if ever worked ?)septic systems where the "fix" was running a tile to drain the effluent into the "ditch" out back is huge! Take 40+ year old homes in clay probably 70%+ with problems. We don't dare face the costs. Bottled water is probably cheaper.

Mark Bertler
Tue, 11/14/2017 - 10:46am

Having worked on these issues during my tenure representing Michigans local public health departments it continues to be a frustrating challenge. As the article suggests we have come close several times. Requiring necessary repairs at the point of sale is one strategy that can address existing failing septic systems when properties change hands. Also, as Mr. Hegarty suggests the uniform code also has to address the 21st century challenges of density and modern living that can overwhelm and render ineffective standard onsite septic systems. In addition, underground aquifers do not stop at governmental boundaries so while laudable, township, city and county ordinances will not fully address the problem and also pose confusion and economic hardship on citizens, builders and developers. It really is time that Michigan stepped up to protect its environment and citizens.

Robyn Tonkin
Tue, 11/14/2017 - 11:29am

I have thought about this issue and studied available literature, for almost 40 years, as we have had well and septic for that long. I am scrupulous about what goes down the drain, but I doubt that most people are. If a chemical compound, be it toxic drain opener, strong cleaning compound, or a chemical soup of personal care products, is sold in a store, it's okay to dump, right? If a doctor prescribes it, it's okay to put down the drain, right? I am not even mentioning the drugs that get into groundwater via voided urine. That aside, I have always thought about how we are supposed to accept that anaerobic bacteria can clean up what flows into the tank well enough to not pollute the groundwater, and thought that was probably not plausible. I think this is a soluble problem, I would imagine we have the science and technology to come up with systems and guidelines so that pollution is greatly minimized. But this would take the political will, first of all, where large swathes of politicians of all stripes to actually buckle down and care about the problem. that is not going to happen.

Robert Tulloch
Tue, 11/14/2017 - 9:08pm

And who would pay for this as yet undeveloped dream? The prime culprits are the houses and cottages around lakes all ove r Michigan. Target them first. They are the major source of contamination. Those lakefront cabins->houses-> homes should never have been allowed to be built. Just like the Lake Michigan shoreline should be public beaches w/o homes.
Low density urban sprawls is a big problem. Every clown want their 1/2 acre with a house, two snow mobiles, two dirt bikes, a 1200 sq. ft house, 5 kids and a septic field.
Bottom line: 25 acre minimum lot size.

Mon, 08/13/2018 - 9:48pm

Robert, why don't you move back to California or the uber-liberal state from which you originated. The problem is Michigan's typical lack of action and enforcement, nothing else.

Tue, 11/14/2017 - 1:04pm

While Ph.D's are normally not very receptive to anyone questioning their work, these conclusions appear very generalized. I wasn't able to find the actual study to read it, but just from this and the older article linked to, there appears to be an absence of some important considerations. "Baseflow" condition protocols would also be intriguing, but I have some questions due to the extremely dynamic nature of geology surrounding surface water sources and the rate at which groundwater flows, depending upon that geology. I would also question the estimates by the DEQ as it works out to each failing septic system producing 238 gallons of raw sewage every day. Since this article is focused entirely on homeowners and their septic systems as the only source of the E. Coli levels being higher than safety levels, I highly doubt this quantity is even possible. I would submit this includes estimates from municipal sources as well. There has been talk of statewide septic rules going back to the 1970's. As I recall, it was the counties who resisted any regulation because it would entirely be incumbent on them for the costs to try and enforce it. This all being said, there are some home septic systems which do need repair or replacing, perhaps close to the estimate. A properly designed, constructed and maintained septic system, below the surface, should last 30 years without any problems or contaminating any groundwater. The levels of E. Coli are a problem, but I submit, there is substantially more to it than just homeowners across the state with bad septic systems, especially when considering the "lifespan" of the bacteria. I would like to read the study first, then meet with the Dr. if it is possible.

Mike Moyer
Wed, 11/15/2017 - 3:04pm

How about an effective education program/process for homeowners with septic tanks ? My experience is that many, if not most, homeowners new to septic systems do not have a clue to good maintenance and inspections practices, but if given proper information and 'tools' are happy to maintain their systems for long, inexpensive and trouble-free life. Please don't discount this approach. It's working very well in our neighborhood ! Education and materials were provided by our septic tank pumper. As a result, he pumps each individual less often, the septic tank systems last longer, there are no system failures, and his customer base has grown exponentially.

Fri, 11/17/2017 - 5:55pm

I agree. Most people don't have a clue. They never grew up with one, and they move out to the country and still haven't a clue. Then, you run heavy equipment over the drainfield and it plugs it up as well. In part because they didn't know it would, and in part because they didn't know where it was.

Then you have rental properties, that overflow their septic systems, and don't want to pump them out because it costs money. then you have various issues with the geology where the drainfields are, and some soils can handle it, others can't and we have a lot of filled in marsh area. Some drainfields work with one type of soil, and others work with another type of soil.

Education is a first step. Even a flipping youtube video with a quiz after it.

A second step would be to reduce the cost of getting it pumped out, which would be more to do with lowered waste treatment costs. Wastewater treatment is extremely energy intensive and expensive. Then you have to disposal costs of the solid waste. There is some research being done on things like phosphate/nitrogen and phosphate recovery and energy efficiency, and even energy production from waste streams. You just don't hear a lot about it in Michigan.

Mon, 11/20/2017 - 12:30pm

Jeff makes some very good points. I am a consulting engineer with 47 years of working on onsite wastewater treatment systems - mostly soil based discharges. Generalizations about rural wastewater systems are frequently not accurate, and do not help. Our large pipe collection and treatment systems have their shortcomings also, and should not get a "pass" with regard to our water quality issues. A case in point is the second major collapse of a large 11-foot diameter sewer pipe near Fraser, MI; the most recent one swallowing 3 homes with it. Where did the sewage from that pipe go while it is being fixed?

I agree that we do need a set of uniform statewide standards for onsite wastewater treatment (septic) systems for a number of good reasons. But I would also suggest that the problem is not with the soil-based discharges from properly designed, constructed and operated onsite systems . . . it is with our lack of a good management program to assure that this is the case.

And, by the way, I find it a bit insulting to the onsite industry that Bridge would use a "Stock photo" like the one that is the lead-in to this article. I doubt that this was taken of any discharge from an onsite septic system or systems in Michigan!!! Come on now!

Mike Hubbard
Wed, 11/15/2017 - 2:34pm

Basically a drop in the bucket compared to the storm overflow from munincipalities and CAFOs. But true, we can do better. There are better and less expensive methods than stone and tile for septic fields as well.

John Johnson
Tue, 11/21/2017 - 1:22pm

Isabella County is moving in the right direction.
The best solution to halt illicit discharges from residential on-site wastewater systems is for a statewide point of sale ordinance, not a statewide sanitary code. The reason Michigan doesn't have a statewide code is because of the significant diversification in soils across the state and the fact that some counties would have to basically stop issuing permits for residential growth because of soil limitations throughout their jurisdictions (refer to tabled "White Paper"). In addition, MDEQ needs to step up their game by inspecting commercial/industrial sites that they permit; currently no inspections are done, ludicrous!
In addition, Dr. Rose cannot state with complete certainty that the e. coli concentrations found in surface waters are from man or mammals without typing the DNA of bacteria found.

Bob Francis
Thu, 11/23/2017 - 12:06pm

There are several issues that all contributed to this problem. The main concern should be the water table height and its proximity to the surface and septic field. Lack of suitable soil, poor septic system design and dangerous chemicals dumped into systems also contributed to ground water pollution. For years nobody cared until the pollution finally showed up in recreational waterways. However, it's been in your drinking water for years if you use a well system.

John Smith
Wed, 12/13/2017 - 8:20am

I built my own home over thirty years ago, including installing the septic system. I over sized both the tank and the drain field, and take care to not put stuff in the system which would adversely impact its operation.

I suspect that the biggest sources of bacteria in many areas are old, poorly maintained municipal sewage systems. Many city systems are far past their service life . I suggest that this should be studied.

Erwin Haas
Thu, 12/28/2017 - 10:08pm

And the Mountains strained and groaned and delivered themselves of a mouse-The Aenead, or suchlike.
The point is, what's the point? There is E coli in the water, probable fecal contamination, but, so what, other than the affront to some MDEQ aesthetics.
Have there been any outbreaks of diseases related to all of this laboratory/bench work? Do I hear cholera? Hep A? Ah, maybe there are outbreaks of polio, of shistosomiasis, of.... that have not made the headlines.
So much effort, all in service of other laboratory work that has nothing to do with human or any other animal health. And, or course, adding yet more laws and regulations that disgust real people who also pay for this fluff.

Thu, 03/22/2018 - 11:14am

Unfortunately the proposed legislation would ban point of sale and instead look to a 10 year inspection period for every field across the state, with no means for enforcement and may be a financial burden on some homeowners to paid $500 for an inspection of a perfectly good field, or when a problem is found, funding a new field at $10,000- $13,000 for replacement. Point of Sale is the best solution wherein money from the sale can be held in escrow for repair.

Sun, 04/22/2018 - 5:20pm

I think most of those Research is BS...Most of Northern Mich is Sand. So lets just stay with Sand on this talk.. 1000 Gal Tank. 200 Gals of water useage per day. 1.400 Gals for 7 days. Use 50 Weeks. 70.000 Gals per Year? Now what's Failure of the system? Define Failure in a Sand system? No such thing, unless the Septic Waste is staying above ground. And not filtering into the Sand? If any of the Drain field pipes are 2 foot below ground level? Sewage into the Sand, Is sewage into the Sand. The Con Job is the newer Engineer systems above ground? Right back into the Sand? If the Water Table is to high for normal draining? Then yes you need engineer System for it to flow out...But my Neighbors were told to replace the old Septic. With the much more expensive system for what. The old system did the job for 40 years? What changed? When 70 thousand Gallons per year flow through the Engineering system? It still waste water into the Water Table? The New System does what different to the Waste Water exiting the Tank? It's crystal Clean Water Now? I'll Drink to that? If your in Clay or hard ground. Then I understand...To me. And I don't like to use these. Out Houses are the best treatment. Why? You don't have 70 Thousands of Gallons per year running through human waste... Now when you build a new place. To me. This is the better way. 1500 gallon system. Same Tank 2 compartments. One side 500 Gallons. The other side 1000 Gals.. 2 pipes running from the New Home. 1st pipe for shower,bath,sinks,laundry to the 500 gallon side. And the waste from toilets to the 1000 Gal side. No sense running soap through waste water from our toilets. But in the long run. In Nothern Mich. You can pretty much run a point well, anywhere in your yard. And hit water at some point going down .. Hence. It's like a river under your Septic System waiting for water to come to it..From your Septic. Running thousands of gallons of water, Through 1000 gallons of human waste? Your going to contaminate the ground water, Running 70.000 Gallons of soap water through your human waste contained in the same tank. Unless you have some kind of special additive to clean human waste??? Then I'll listen Kevin

Brian Droscha
Tue, 04/24/2018 - 7:21pm

Does the DEQ use common core math?
Let me give you some REAL numbers. Using Department of Environmental Quality data from 2016, the City of Lansing had 50 Sewage discharge events totaling 342 million gallons. Think about that; 342 million gallons of sewage pumped into the Grand River flowing past the back yards and contaminating the ground water of every Michigan resident between Lansing and the shores of Lake Michigan. This is equal to 228,000 private septic tanks disgorged of their entire capacity simultaneously. That is just for one city, in one year and No Time Of Sale program would have any effect or control over any municipal system. Another thing to remember; many, if not all, municipal discharges are deliberate as a design of their wastewater systems, not accidental.
These are REAL facts you can find on the DEQ website, not speculation. Do your research.

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 10:38pm

I’m a septic inspecter that wanted to be on the committee for a state wide code they told me there are only 6 people to decide? I think my voice should matter I have lived my entire life in the septage business my voice should matter so why don’t they want to listen to me?

Tom Graham
Sat, 02/01/2020 - 12:02pm

Animal waste is the only main source of E. coli.
If we were to remove all the humans from the planet, there would still be plenty of E.coli in the water. Getting rid of all the septic tanks and switching over to sewers would remove about 5% of the E.coli from our watershed. This article is full of misinformation for what intent I can only guess.