Editor’s note: This post is by MEC intern Matthew McLaughlin
A story of infrastructure long forgotten is developing in Michigan. While we rank number one in the country for most dissatisfaction for road conditions, the recent tragedy in Flint has forced all Michigan citizens to consider the infrastructure that we don’t see. Here and in other states, an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality has led to neglect of water lines, municipal sewers and other infrastructure.
That neglect is especially apparent when it comes to on-site wastewater treatment systems, commonly known as septic systems, used by homes that are not connected to a centralized sewer system. Michigan has about 1.3 million septic systems in its rural areas and sprawling suburbs. Once septics are installed, many homeowners simply don’t remember to have them inspected, or even emptied, unless a problem occurs. This history of neglect has led to a widespread problem of failing systems.
Surprisingly, given the central role fresh water plays in our lifestyle and identity, Michigan is the only state without a law that specifically regulates septics. Eleven counties exercise some oversight of septics, including regular inspections, but they are unregulated in the remaining 72 counties. The state has attempted to address the problem multiple times, including in 2004 when then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm created the On-Site Wastewater Treatment Systems Task Force. That year the task force released a white paper with recommendations for a statewide sanitary code regulating septics. To date, however, there has not been a legislative solution to the problem.
And it is a serious problem. Joan Rose, an expert in water microbiology, water quality and public health, and others at Michigan State University recently found that rivers in areas with high concentrations of septic systems have increased evidence of E. coli and B. theta, which are indicators of human waste. In fact, they found evidence of sewage in all 64 river systems that they sampled. The state’s water strategy, issued last year by the Department of Environmental Quality, estimated that 10 percent of the state’s septics—about 130,000 systems—are failing and leaking an astounding 31 million gallons of sewage every day into our rivers, lakes and ground water. That’s a conservative estimate, far lower than observed rates in other states. Read more