Thousands of failed septic tanks threaten Michigan’s waters

Public health sanitarian Regina Young wasn’t sure what her staff would encounter when the Barry-Eaton District Health Department clamped down on failed septic systems in 2007.

They quickly discovered more problems than anyone anticipated in those two largely rural counties, said Young, supervisor of the Barry-Eaton District Health Department’s Water Protection Team.

In the first six years of the program, Young’s staff discovered nearly 1,000 failed septic systems and 300 houses with no septic systems whatsoever. In those cases, household sewage was piped into the nearest farm drain, lake or stream.

“The ways that people come up with to get rid of their sewage just blows your mind,” Young said. “It’s hard to think of a worst case example … there were so many.”

By catching and correcting failed septic systems and illicit sewage discharges over the past six years, Young said health officials kept 107 million gallons of raw sewage from reaching surface waters and groundwater in the two counties between Lansing and Holland.

Problems extend statewide

There are about 1.3 million on-site wastewater treatment systems in Michigan, most of which are septic systems for single-family homes. State officials estimate that 10 percent of those (130,000) have failed and are polluting the environment.

But the problem may be far worse. Several counties that require septic tank inspections during real estate transactions have reported a septic system failure rate of 20 percent to 25 percent, according to a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality report.

MORE COVERAGE: Michigan has nation’s weakest regulations on septic systems

Failed septic systems are a concern because human sewage is loaded with pathogens that can threaten the health of people who swim in polluted waters or drink contaminated well water. Several experts interviewed by Bridge said water pollution from failed septic systems is a serious, but under-appreciated, problem across Michigan.

failure to dispose“It’s affecting our groundwater and surface waters,” said Joan Rose, a water quality expert who holds the Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research at Michigan State University.

“We’ve tested rivers in the Lower Peninsula during low flow conditions (when most of the river water is groundwater, not runoff from the landscape) and we can detect signs of septic tank waste,” Rose said. “The more sewage tanks that are in the area, the higher the human sewage markers in the water.”

Among the rivers studied, MSU scientists found the highest levels of genetic markers, indicating the presence of human fecal matter, in the South Branch of the Black River in Southwest Michigan, Bear Creek, the Kalamazoo River, the Huron River and the Pere Marquette. Rose said there was no doubt that the fecal matter in those rivers came from leaky septic systems.

Human waste has to go somewhere

Each day, Michigan residents discharge about 264 million gallons of wastewater into septic systems and other on-site treatment facilities. About 10 percent of that wastewater is piped into failed on-site treatment systems, according to state data.

Over the course of a year, that amounts to 9.4 billion gallons of untreated wastewater flowing into failed treatment systems, DEQ estimates.

Some of that raw sewage — no one knows how much — ends up in lakes, streams and underground aquifers that supply drinking water wells.

Septic systems and other on-site wastewater treatment systems for homes and businesses work well when properly installed and maintained. The problem is that many homeowners fail to maintain septic systems because it’s not required.

Michigan is the only state without a statewide code governing how septic systems are designed, installed and maintained. County health departments regulate where septic tanks can be installed, but just 11 of Michigan’s 83 counties have programs that identify failed septic systems and force repairs.

The result is a patchwork of regulations and scores of failed septic systems that go undetected, said Richard A. Falardeau, chief of DEQ’s environmental health section.

Septics go suburban

Septic systems were originally designed for rural areas, where homes often were too far away to connect to a centralized, municipal wastewater treatment system. Now the devices are a popular method of sewage disposal in many suburban communities.

The growth of suburbs over the past 50 years did more than transform the landscape: Urban sprawl also fueled a dramatic increase in the number of septic systems.

In 1990, 28 percent of single-family homes in Michigan were connected to septic systems, according to state data. By 2004, 50 percent of all new homes were using septic systems to handle household wastewater.

Local health departments issue more than 30,000 permits each year for new and replacement septic systems in Michigan.

“Back in the day we had dense communities and farms were the only places that had septic tanks. Along come interstates and urban sprawl and now you have septic systems being used in a completely different manner than they were born into,” said Jim Hegarty, a civil engineer and expert on wastewater treatment systems.

Nationally, 26 million homes and 60 million people use septic tanks or other on-site sewage treatment systems. The majority of those devices work as designed, but many states have reported septic system failure rates that rival Michigan’s.

One of the worst cases of a failed septic system contaminating well water occurred in Door County, Wis., in 2007. More than 200 customers at a restaurant and six employees suffered intestinal ailments after drinking contaminated water.

Septics vs. sewers

Larry Stephens, an engineer and president of the Michigan On-site Wastewater Recycling Association, said septic systems and other on-site wastewater treatment systems get a bum rap. He said small, decentralized treatment systems are more environmentally friendly than large municipal wastewater treatment facilities that serve entire communities.

“A properly maintained on-site treatment system is more sustainable than the centralized treatment systems,” said Stephens, whose consulting firm oversees construction of on-site systems.

He said municipal sewer systems dump more untreated sewage into lakes and rivers than all the septic systems in Michigan combined. State data support his claim.

According to DEQ data, Michigan’s municipal wastewater treatment facilities discharged 7.8 billion gallons of raw sewage and another 21.6 billion gallons of partially treated sewage into lakes and rivers in 2011. Most of those discharges occurred in Detroit and other cities where heavy rainfall overwhelmed combined sewer systems that treat both wastewater and stormwater. (Coming May 16: When rains and sewage combine.)

“Wastewater treatment plants are supposed to fix their combined sewer overflows, but anytime untreated sewage enters the environment it is a risk,” Rose said. “Septic tanks are a known risk contributing viruses to groundwater and surface water. They have been linked to (disease) outbreaks … so we cannot ignore this.”

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.

Hydrogeology Group, Geological Sciences Department, Michigan State University

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David Waymire
Tue, 05/14/2013 - 9:31am
In 1990, 28 percent of single-family homes in Michigan were connected to septic systems, according to state data. By 2004, 50 percent of all new homes were using septic systems to handle household wastewater. Another hidden cost of suburban sprawl. If these homes had included the proper cost of sewage disposal in their prices, many would not have been built. Their owners would have stayed in cities that now are struggling from loss of population and difficulties sustaining legacy costs. Free market failure due to improper pricing signals that failed to take into account externalities.
Kevin Wilson
Tue, 05/14/2013 - 9:42am
Side issue: If you're going to use the name "Bridge" in Michigan, there's no excuse for publishing a state map that doesn't show the Upper Penninsula and doesn't note the fact or explain why... As a newspaper reporter in the 1980s, I did a few stories much like this one about unreliable septic systems in use in the expanding northwestern suburbs of Detroit. It looks as if nothing much has changed except for the expanded reliance on such systems.
Derek Melot
Tue, 05/14/2013 - 11:10am
Mr. Wilson, The map came courtesy of Michigan State University in the form you see there. Obviously, no statement is being made about the Upper Peninsula in its use. It is the map we had at hand. Derek Melot, senior editor.
Yooper Jim
Wed, 05/15/2013 - 9:36am
Weak, Derek. It was an article about Michigan. We're part of Michigan. You could have included something in the text and something in the caption saying that data was not being included about the Yoop because of "X".... A great "Part II" would be to report about the problem in the U.P. Not trying to be obnoxious (well a little bit, maybe), but the U.P. gets left out of so many things about "Michigan". - Yooper Jim, founder of YABI (Yoopers Against Being Ignored).
Yooper Jim
Wed, 05/15/2013 - 9:28am
To borrow from Horton Hears a Who: "We are here... We are here.... We are HERE...! I would be interested in seeing data from the U.P. I suspect the density of septic systems would be lower (we're not very dense about anything up here) but that the percentage of failed/inadequate/missing systems would be higher (well, I guess we might be dense about that). In recent history the community of Freda in the Keweenaw was found to be dumping all there waste into Lake Superior. "Nobody knew!" Yah, right.
W. Laidlaw
Tue, 05/14/2013 - 10:29am
What is the definition of a failed septic system and how would a homeowner ever know in the absence of obvious free-standing water, no odor, no flush issues, etc?
Tue, 05/14/2013 - 12:17pm
Tanks are not neccesarily the problem it is septic fields next to lake and rivers. We have neighbors that have septic fields and live right next to the river. We have holding tanks and get pumped. No waiste escapes our dwelling. Each of these other systems has a field connected to a tank. The tank is there to hold solids and hopefully get pumped on a regular basis. Alot of land owners do not know this. There in lies the primary culprit.
Wed, 05/15/2013 - 1:26pm
How do the farm factories play into the waste disposal. We have 2 of these within 5 miles of our home - both cattle and they are dumping the manure on farm land around and then plowing it. We have a drainage ditch that runs around the property and we can watch the run off AND SMELL IT when it rains and other times. I am very concerned about our well water. Any advice?
Mon, 05/20/2013 - 2:08pm
I am curious what the definition of a "failed" septic system. Does that mean it is dumping raw sewage into the water table? Or, as my experience has shown me, does it mean that the system today, met the septic code on the day it was built, but the septic code has been changed (made more restrictive) and currently does not the 'new' standard?