In 2004, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm unveiled a water protection plan that called for a statewide code to better regulate the state’s 1.3 million septic tanks and other on-site wastewater treatment systems.
Nine years later, that statewide code remains a regulatory dream -- even though there are 130,000 failed septic systems lurking underground across much of the state.
Michigan, in fact, is the only state in the nation without uniform standards governing how on-site sewage treatment systems are designed, built, installed and maintained. Filling this gap, health officials say, would address the single biggest problem with septic systems: The lack of maintenance.
“A state code would be a benefit in terms of managing on-site treatment systems after they are constructed,” said Richard A. Falardeau, chief of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s environmental health section. “In most counties, after a system is built, the counties don’t go back to make sure those systems are functioning properly.”
Install AND maintain
Septic tanks should be pumped out every three to five years to prevent back-ups. The average lifespan of a septic system is about 20 years, according to government and industry officials. Replacing a failed septic system costs between $5,000 and $20,000.
County health departments regulate where septic systems can be installed, but the regulations end there for much of the state. Only 11 of Michigan’s 83 counties have gone beyond existing state regulations and enacted programs designed to detect failed septic systems and force repairs.
A statewide septic code would level the playing field for septic tank companies, encourage innovative technologies and produce better treatment of wastewater, said Larry Stephens, president of the Michigan On-site Wastewater Recycling Association.
The Legislature has considered six proposals since 2004 to establish a statewide code for septic systems, but none made it out of committee. A new proposal is reportedly in the works and several key organizations are already lining up to support it.
State officials and wastewater industry representatives said Republican Rep. Lisa Lyons of Alto is drafting legislation to establish a statewide code for septic systems. Lyons did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
Gov. Rick Snyder’s office says it is “engaged in preliminary conversations” on the topic, but has not taken an official stand on any legislative concept.
Other states have detailed codes that govern on-site wastewater treatment systems:
-Wisconsin requires that all septic tanks be inspected every three years.
-Maryland requires annual inspections of septic systems.
-Most other states have detailed rules for the design, installation and maintenance of septic systems.
A 2004 report commissioned by the Granholm administration suggested that all septic systems in Michigan be inspected every 10 years. It’s unclear if that recommendation will be part of Rep. Lyons’ legislation.
Officials at the Michigan Association of Realtors, Michigan Townships Association and the Michigan On-site Wastewater Recycling Association said a statewide code is overdue.
“Most of us in the private and public sector agree that we do need a uniform statewide code. We might disagree on the details but everyone agrees on the need for a statewide code,” Stephens said.
Court ruling could force change
A 2012 Michigan Supreme Court ruling could bolster efforts to enact a statewide septic code.
In a case that pitted the DEQ against Worth Township in Sanilac County, the court ruled that local municipalities are obligated to address sewage spills that cause water pollution.
For years, Worth Township fought DEQ demands to replace failed septic systems in homes along Lake Huron with a municipal sewage treatment facility. The township is now forging ahead with the treatment system.
Tom Frazier, legislative liaison for the Michigan Townships Association, said the organization supports a statewide code for septic systems -- provided it doesn’t interfere with local governments’ authority to decide land use issues.
The Michigan Association of Realtors also supports a statewide code, a spokesman said, with one major caveat: It cannot include a “time of sale” program that requires septic tank inspections and repairs before properties change hands.
“We have always opposed time of sale ordinances because they make the Realtor a cop who has to make sure the (septic system) inspection occurs and ensures that escrow money is set aside for any necessary repairs,” said Brian Westrin, manager of legal affairs for the Realtors association.
Eleven Michigan counties already have “time of sale” programs. And those programs have detected and repaired hundreds of failed septic systems, according to government data.
A time of sale inspection program enacted in Barry and Eaton counties in 2007, for example, has identified 300 homes that had no septic system at all. Raw sewage from those homes was piped into the nearest ditch or waterway, said Regina Young, manager of supervisor of the Barry-Eaton District Health Department’s Water Protection Team.
Young said she believes the time of sale requirements in Barry and Eaton counties could be expanded statewide without disrupting real estate transactions.
Five counties around Saginaw Bay — Huron, Tuscola, Bay, Arenac and Iosco— are working on a regional code for septic systems. That code would require septic system inspections every five years, said Laura Ogar, Bay County’s director of environmental affairs and community development.
Bay County also established a revolving loan fund to help waterfront homeowners replace failed septic systems. The fund began with $100,000 and just six septic system replacements used up all of that money, Ogar said.
“Our goal was to keep our beaches clean,” Ogar said. “We want to keep bacteria out of the water.”
Jeff Alexander is owner of J. Alexander Communications LLC and the author of "Pandora's Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence Seaway." A former staff writer for the Muskegon Chronicle, Alexander writes a blog on the Great Lakes.