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On Higgins Lake, distrust and old grudges cloud septic debate

Fearing that septic pollution is harming Higgins Lake’s pristine waters, local public officials are weighing a sewer project that has pitted neighbor-against-neighbor in the lakeside community. (Bridge photo by Kelly House)
  • Scientists and health officials say too many septic systems threaten Higgins Lake
  • Townships want to install sewers to curb septic pollution, but there’s been backlash 
  • The clash has worsened divides between more affluent lakefront owners and back-lot property owners

HIGGINS LAKE — For decades, study after study has warned that nutrients from septic systems are slowly polluting this ice blue lake Up North. But standing on the shore, peering through clear water to a white sandy bottom, it’s hard to tell the lake is under threat.

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“It’s deceiving,” said Mark Luttenton, a Grand Valley State University biology professor who has spent years studying the lake. “And that makes it really hard to convince people that Higgins Lake has a problem.”

Therein lies the most basic of many challenges facing public officials in the shoreline communities of Gerrish and Lyon townships. 

The townships are considering a $115 million sewer project to curb pollution from thousands of cottages, condos and mansions that now surround Higgins Lake —  all of them flushing their toilets into septic tanks that drain, eventually, toward the lake itself.

The project has pitted the owners of valuable waterfront homes (who generally support the sewer plan) against the owners of more modest back-lot properties (who often question the expense and necessity of sewers).  

Some of the dozens of sewer opponents who spoke Monday at a standing-room-only public hearing questioned why other threats, such as lawn fertilizer, aren’t getting more attention. Or runoff from area roads. Or boaters peeing in the lake’s sandbars. 

Public opposition to the plan has snowballed into online vitriol, recall efforts targeting township officials, a lawsuit and a petition drive that aims to block the sewer proposal. And the fight is reviving old grudges between wealthier lakefront property owners and the owners of lower-value backlots further from the lake, as residents spar over who’s most responsible for the pollution and who would benefit most from its cleanup.

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“If this is such a great (plan),” said Dave Hobson, a leader of the anti-sewer group Higgins Lake United, “why not put it to a vote?”

Experts say the dispute may presage battles coming to other lake areas in Michigan, as worsening septic pollution forces communities to consider how much they’re willing to pay for clean water, and who should foot the bill.

Problems in the water

The area surrounding Higgins —  a roughly 10,000-acre glacier-carved lake east of US-127 in Roscommon County — has relatively few year-round residents. But the lake’s clarity and loose white sand — trademarks of young oligotrophic lakes where low nutrient levels keep plants and algae at bay —  have long attracted visitors, including anglers who fish the deep, cold waters for trout, whitefish, perch and bass.  

Over the decades, thousands of vacation homes have proliferated along Higgins’ beaches and backlots, drawing water from wells and flushing their toilets, sinks and washing machines into on-site septic systems.

Hundreds of people packed into a public hearing Monday in Gerrish Township, where sewer opponents voiced their concerns about the proposed $115 million project. (Bridge photo by Kelly House)

The systems — common in rural areas that lack sewers — work by collecting waste in an underground tank. Solids settle to the bottom and liquids percolate into the soil through an outlet at the back of the tank. Properly-functioning systems strip away bacteria, viruses, and toxics in the process. But they are less adept at filtering out nutrients released from decaying human waste. 

As development has packed the shorelines of Michigan's recreational lakes, an overabundance of nutrient-tainted septic water has begun to contaminate wells and seep into waterways. Its arrival fuels plant growth, artificially speeding up the aging process by which clear oligotrophic lakes like Higgins transform into weedier mesotrophic lakes such as nearby Houghton. 

The challenge extends far beyond this northern Michigan region. 

Michigan has roughly 1.4 million septic systems, and state officials have estimated as much as 20 percent of them could be failing. Because Michigan is the only state without a uniform septic code, and many local governments don’t closely regulate failing systems, problems often fester.

The 21st Century Infrastructure Commission, a group appointed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder, called for new regulations, an embrace of sewers where warranted, and state spending of about $20 million annually to help people with “demonstrated financial need” fix their septics.

“Septic tanks just aren't a modern way of treating wastewater,” said Joan Rose, a Michigan State University microbiologist who studies water quality issues. “The modern approach is a (sewer-fed) treatment facility.”

Problems at Higgins Lake have been apparent for years. Studies have shown elevated nutrient levels in the groundwater surrounding the springfed lake. And more recently, algae has begun to form a crust on the once-soft sand. Dig just underneath, Luttenton said, and “you can smell septic.”

The lake isn’t the only casualty. One-in-10 nearby household wells surveyed by the Central Michigan District Health Department contained nitrate nutrient levels exceeding federal drinking water standards.

A telltale sign of septic pollution, nitrate can cause methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby syndrome,” which can cause rapid heartbeat, breathing problems and seizures. More recent studies have also associated nitrate exposure with a host of health problems in adults.

Steve King, the health department’s environmental health director, said 40 percent of homeowners near Higgins Lake haven’t updated their septic systems in more than 50 years — double the typical system’s lifespan. 

Sewer opponents have urged township officials to order homeowners to fix old and faulty septics instead of forcing the entire community to pay for sewers. But King said that’s not feasible in the densely-packed subdivisions of Gerrish and Lyon townships. Many homes sit on lots so small, septics are buried directly adjacent to drinking water wells. It would be impossible to replace them in a way that meets modern health codes. 

“Every system around the lake could get replaced with a brand new septic system this year, and you’re still gonna see that same nutrient issue,” King said.

Brad and Becky Gibson said they support plans to install a sewer near Higgins Lake, fearing the lake will be forever altered if something isn’t done to curb septic pollution. (Bridge photo by Kelly House)

A sewer push, and a recall effort

Township officials say Michigan’s windfall of billions of federal infrastructure dollars and COVID relief funds offer a rare opportunity to pursue grants to cover some or all of the $115 million sewer project. 

Residents would share any remaining cost, plus system operation fees of a few hundred dollars annually. Those costs would be borne equally among homes served by the sewer, regardless of property value or square footage, Gerrish Township Supervisor David Udy said, though money would be available to offset costs for low-income residents.

Michigan law allows township boards to create “special assessment districts” to impose such costs, and township officials last month tentatively designated a district. But they vowed to reconsider the project if outside funding fails to materialize. Udy said the step was necessary to compete for outside funds.

“If we act now to preserve Higgins Lake, then 100 years from now, people will continue to enjoy its crystal clear water,” Udy said. But “if we don’t get grant funding, we won’t do the project.”

But some vocal detractors in the community said they don’t trust that vow, and that the area’s lower-income residents can’t afford new expenses.

With an average household income of just under $42,000, “Roscommon County is one of the poorest counties in the entire state,” said Hobson, the opposition leader. “There's a lot of people on fixed incomes, there's a lot of people who have struggled, and there's a lot of retirees.”

The lawn signs that dot yards throughout the townships tell the tale of a community divided by class and location. 

Pro-sewer signs are prominent on the lakefront lots where even small cottages now sell for upwards of $1 million. Blocks away from shore, where real estate regularly lists for less than $250,000, most signs urge passersby to petition against the sewer.

Two groups spearheaded by lakefront property owners — the Higgins Lake Foundation and Higgins Lake Property Owners’ Association — have been instrumental in studying the lake’s problems and pushing for a sewer. 

“My fear is for the whole county,” said Vicki Springstead, the foundation’s chair. “Economically, we’re so dependent on the influx of people that come here for the lake…It would be terrible to see cottages going up for sale left and right because our lake is no longer desirable.”

But sewer opponents say they believe the project will primarily benefit their lakeside neighbors, who already enjoy higher property values and greater lake access, and may be free to build bigger houses if the sewers come in.

“It’s pitting neighbors against neighbors,” said Janet “Elly” Kreger, a backlot resident who said she’s skeptical the proposed sewers can fix a water threat that likely has multiple causes. 

“One side wants to believe one thing,” she said, “and the other side wants to believe the other.”

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources fisheries division supports the sewer proposal, warning that deepwater oxygen losses caused by septic pollution are a threat to the local recreational fishing scene that generates $1.6 million annually. The county health department, likewise, has signaled support, as have environmental groups.

But opponents have accused Gerrish and Lyon township officials of gerrymandering the special assessment district’s borders to reduce their political power. They’ve launched a recall effort targeting members of both township boards, and a petition drive aimed at blocking the sewer proposal.

To do so, opponents would need to collect objections from property owners representing more than 20 percent of the proposed district’s landmass. If they succeed, backers of the sewer project would need to return fire by collecting petitions from the owners of more than half of the district to push the project through. 

By Monday’s objection deadline, Higgins Lake United and its supporters had turned in hundreds of petitions. They’d also filed a lawsuit seeking to reinstate old petitions from a previous campaign. 

Township officials are now tallying petitions to determine whether the anti-sewer sentiment is strong enough to trigger the need to gather majority support for the sewer plan.

Lyon Township Supervisor Julie Tatro said the sudden upheaval has come as a shock to public officials, who had spent years discussing the need for a sewer at mostly-empty public meetings. In recent months, Tatro and Udy said officials have faced unspecified threats and intimidation related to their support for the sewer.

“The nastiness and the accusations and the name calling and the threats,” Tatro said, “It’s just very, very sad.” 

Worried the sewer plan could fall through, Tatro said Lyon Township’s board has been working on a new ordinance to better regulate pollution from the septics that remain.

That, too, could be costly. Replacement of a single system can cost well upwards of $10,000.

Janet “Elly” Kreger said she doesn’t trust township officials who are exploring a possible sewer around Higgins Lake, and remains skeptical that septics are the driving cause of the lake’s pollution problems. (Bridge photo by Kelly House)

Old grudges die hard

Tensions between lakefront property owners and backlot residents are nothing new in Higgins Lake. Old grudges over lake access appear to fuel some of today’s controversy.

Sewer opponent Ric Federau said animosity stems in part from a decades-long fight between lakefront residents and back-lot owners who used to moor their boats at docks jutting out of public road-ends surrounding the lake. A lawsuit by lakefront resident put an end to the practice, and “the whole thing just divided the community,” he said.

With lakefront residents now spearheading the push for sewers, Federau said, “the general conception from (property owners without direct lake access) is, ‘Why am I having to pay for a so-called sewer system, when I live a mile off the lake?’”

Scientists counter that because all nearby groundwater eventually reaches the lake, hall septic pollution is a problem, regardless of whether it comes from a lakefront home or a back lot. 

Brad Gibson, a lakeside resident who frequently stations at area parks to advocate for the sewer, said that bad blood has become as fundamental to the sewer debate as cost concerns and skepticism about the source of the pollution.

“There is deep-seated animosity here,” he said. “My hope is once it’s determined whether we go forward or not, that we mend the fences.”

Sewer skeptics say they are further fueled by anxiety over gentrification in the area, where some small cottages have been replaced with bigger homes, and seasonal dwellings have been converted into short-term rentals frequented by a revolving cast of strangers.

Some say they fear a sewer will only hasten the changes. The draft plan for the sewer project leaves room for more development, estimating a population growth of 1 percent annually over the next 20 years. 

“Property values are going to go up, and the millionaires are going to buy all the houses,” resident Ruth Mutchler said Monday at a packed Gerrish Township public hearing, while “people that are retirees on fixed income stand to lose.”

But growth is coming whether or not the sewer arrives, Springstead said, as the work-from-home revolution gives people more freedom to relocate and retiring baby boomers convert their Up North cottages into full-time homes. If those trends continue without appropriate infrastructure, she fears, the lake’s pollution problems will spiral out of control.

“We can't hide Higgins Lake,” Springstead said, “as much as many of us would like to put a fence around it and say sorry, we're full.”

‘We’re not stopping’

The ongoing fight is no surprise to Steve Earley, president of the board at nearby Camp Curnalia, a military veterans’ community with 405 modest cabins on the lake’s northwest shore. Earley and his neighbors endured similar controversy before Camp Curnalia installed a sewer system in 2009.

Residents now have a $145 quarterly maintenance fee plus about $800 annually to pay off the cost of installing the sewer, Earley said.

Earley was among the critics. But in the years since the sewer arrived, he said, groundwater nutrient levels have declined and “I’m glad we put it in.”

Earley said he wishes neighboring lakefront communities would do the same — something he said was promised back when Camp Curnalia made the switch from septic to sewer.

“That was almost 15 years ago,” he said, “and nothing’s happened since.”

Rose, the MSU expert, said such fights are common in lakefront communities any time the topic of sewers comes up — particularly in places with lots of low-income residents. Better waste management will certainly benefit the lake and protect public health, she said, “but the benefit is in the future, and the cost is now.” 

Though a massive influx of federal money has created a rare opportunity for Michigan communities to seek water infrastructure funding assistance, Higgins Lake is just one of many seeking a cut. 

The money “isn’t going to be able to solve all of the infrastructure needs of the state,” said Phil Argiroff, assistant director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy’s Water Resources Division.

EGLE has about $800 million available for low-interest loans in the coming fiscal year, plus $400 million for grants spread out over two years. But demand is far higher: So far, Argiroff said, funding requests for this year alone stand at roughly $1.5 billion.

While the debate plays out, Higgins Lake’s clear waters continue to change. Luttenton, the GVSU biologist, has noticed more blooms of filamentous green algae — the type often found in drainage ditches with high nutrient concentrations. And cyanobacteria known as blue-green algae have recently entered the mix.

“If it keeps going, it will become a bigger issue in the future,” Luttenton said. 

However the no-sewer petitions pan out, sewer supporter Gibson said he’s confident the proposal has enough support to pass. And if it doesn’t?

“We’re not stopping,” he said. “We’ve come way too far to back away from this now.”

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