Communities move on septic, but state legislation stagnates

Michigan is the land of 11,000 lakes and 36,000 miles of streams. We are the Great Lakes State. But.

We also are the land of 1.3 million septic systems – and the only state in the union with no uniform code to regulate them.

Environmental regulators estimate that hundreds of thousands of Michigan’s septic systems are failing, flushing raw sewage that ends up where we swim, fish, drink.

Perhaps we should change to the Great Septic State? Or maybe tweak “Water Winter Wonderland” to “Food Flush Frolic?”

One local gem of a lake, however, will get some protections, thanks to the actions of a township board, nonprofit research and health department cooperation.

Next month, residents of Torch Lake Township will have their septic tanks inspected when they sell their homes in a new time-of-transfer ordinance. The rule also will require inspections of septic tanks on properties within 500 feet of a water body and those with no record of a septic permit.

Township trustees worked with Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council and the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, which will conduct the inspections.

It modeled its ordinance after nearby Milton Township, which has frontage on Lake Michigan, Elk Lake, Lake Skegemog and Torch Lake.

Milton Township put its time-of-transfer ordinance in place in 2012, inspecting 443 properties in more than a decade of chipping away at problem septic tanks.

One test they do in homes is for coliform bacteria spewing from the tap.

Last year, out of 24 wastewater systems inspected, one was contaminated. In a decade, though, the ordinance has done more than outright protection of homeowner bodies and the community water bodies, it “helped raise awareness regarding the installation, use, operation, and maintenance of on-site systems,” reads the 2022 annual report.

In a decade, the ordinance did not lead to restrictive, big-government, strong-arm upheaval (valid detractor arguments), but rather a feeling of connection to the resource and a general sense of “homeowner education.”

We hope that Torch Lake Township, and the other various government bodies and associations that have instituted similar measures, have the same positive result.

We also recommend that the state look at the time-tested protocols in these areas as, so far, attempts to pass a statewide septic code (House Bills 4479 and 4480) sit stagnant.

Meanwhile, algal blooms and E. coli continue to pollute our state’s gems, nourished by failing septic systems.

In an eye-popping study in 2015, university researchers found 100 percent of the state’s streams contained human fecal bacteria via leaky septic systems.

Being the Great Lakes State comes with Great Lakes responsibility, and fostering a connection between cause and effect is a meaningful step.

After all, what goes in, must come out.

— Traverse City Record Eagle


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