TRAVERSE CITY — Not all toilet flushes are equal.
In cities, water flows through drains, converges with everyone else’s sewage, and eventually is sent to a distant plant for treatment.
But in rural areas, septic waste is treated locally, in many cases in a residential backyard, and any problem in the system could lead to local pollution and health hazards.
Members of Leelanau Clean Water, a county committee, hope to prevent effluent pollution by encouraging townships to enforce a septic inspection upon the sale of a residential or commercial property.
“A septic system that’s put in the ground within a foot or two of the water table, it may work hydraulically, where you flush the toilet and the water goes away, but it might not be working environmentally,” said Tom Fountain, environmental health director for the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department.
Failed septic systems can lead to nutrient-loading, nuisance algae in lakes and the spread of E. coli.
Leelanau County commissioners rejected inspection ordinance proposals several times in the past few years, so now the group seeks out individual townships to support an ordinance that would force inspection.
Leelanau Clean Water initially targeted Glen Arbor, Kasson and Empire townships because of their proximity to Glen Lake. Group members urged township officials to adopt an ordinance that would address the problem.
“If you take 100 septic systems around Glen Lake, statistically three or four are failing, and if they’re failing, they’re dumping pollutants into ground water or surface water or both,” said Rob Karner, a biologist for the Glen Lake Association and a member of Leelanau Clean Water. “It’s a public health and environmental issue.”
Glen Arbor officials agreed this month to pursue an ordinance, township Supervisor John Soderholm said. It could take several months for officials to agree on its wording.
It’s still early in their study, but Soderholm said officials could be more open to adopting an ordinance that would apply only to shoreline properties.
“The major concern is maintaining the quality of water we have in the township and in the area, so by addressing that topic related to lakefront properties exclusively, it addresses concerns of the board,” Soderholm said.
The Village of Empire passed point-of-sale inspection ordinance over a year ago, zoning administrator Bill Fuller said. The ordinance makes sellers responsible for telling buyers about the septic system’s state.
“I think it was to let people know who are buying property that weren’t familiar with in-ground septic systems, that there is something that’s in the ground, and it needs to be looked at and watched,” Fuller said.
Fuller could only recall one instance in which a septic system had to be replaced.
Benzie County has had a point-of-sale ordinance since around 1990, and officials since have seen a decline in septic problems. About 300 systems were inspected in the last year, and about 10 percent of those had problems, Fountain said.