TRAVERSE CITY — Talks about sewage and septic systems have seeped into Leelanau County a few times in the last decade.
Much of rural northern Michigan runs on septic systems. Leelanau County is no different — and only a few towns in the county have actual sanitary sewers, bringing the issue to the surface.
The Leelanau County board of commissioners in July voted down commissioner Ty Wessell’s motion to form a committee to review septic system issues in the county with an eye toward considering a point-of-sale inspection ordinance.
“This isn’t the first time it’s come up, but it can’t just come up again without studying the options,” he said. “I was dismayed we couldn’t have a committee to at least study it. I don’t know what the right solution is, but I think it deserves a study to get the facts. It ought not to be political — it’s a human health issue and an environmental one.”
Currently, there isn’t regulation concerning when septic systems should be inspected. When property remodels occur within the county, there’s a request to inspect, said Tom Fountain, director of the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department.
Older septic systems or ones that aren’t properly maintained can malfunction and can allow seepage into the surrounding environment. Dry soil is required to filter out contaminants, but the process doesn’t always work and contaminants could get into the groundwater, which works its way into lakes and streams, he said.
Lack of an inspection could allow continued sewage seepage. A well-maintained system could last 20-plus years.
“We see failed systems on a regular basis. They wear out after a while, they certainly don’t last forever,” Fountain said. “We do get good longevity on properly placed systems — pumping tanks and maintaining them is one way to get longevity. But someday they might have to be replaced.
“We have some still working fine that were put in in the ‘70s. If they’re properly placed, sized and maintained, they can last.”
Benzie County enacted a point-of-sale inspection ordinance in 1990, meaning the county would perform septic inspections when property is sold.
“We have seen improvements in the last 27 years,” Fountain said. “Early on, when it passed, we had a lot of upgrades and now 27 years later we’re not seeing quite as many.”
Most septic failures in Leelanau are caused by tree roots — which take a long time to break into a system, but once a tree roots get in, the system needs to be replaced, he said.
Fountain expressed concerns over rental vacation homes, which often advertise sleeping arrangements for 10-plus people to stay in a home meant for a family of 3-5 — meaning more gallons of water and waste are flushed into a system that might not be capable of handling the load.
“People are also remodeling small seasonal or modest homes to have more bedrooms and water fixtures — those things need to be addressed on whether the system can handle them or need to be replaced,” he said.
Commissioner Melinda Lautner said area Realtors should take on the responsibility of septic inspections when an owner lists property, not the county.
“Realtors want to sell a healthy home and they don’t want to hold up the point of sale,” she said. “I’ve heard Benzie residents are paying more on mortgages because of waiting for the inspections — interest rates climb.”
Lautner said a point-of-sale ordinance would force everyone to have an inspection for homes, which can delay land sales.
“I firmly believe this whole issue can be solved through education — I think we could solve it in a more positive way than to force yet another government ordinance,” she said.
Fountain and Wessell both agreed more education for lawmakers and the public would be beneficial in moving forward.
As did the Leelanau County League of Women Voters, which will host a Sept. 13 panel discussion on the topic.
“Water is everything. And when we look around our beautiful scenic northern Michigan, we think everything is doing great, but often it can be stuff you can’t see — most people don’t think about their septic until it fails,” said Tricia Denton, who sits on the Leelanau Clean Water board as a member of the league.
The goal of the panel, which includes Fountain, Nick Fleezanis, president of Lake Leelanau Lake Association; and Joe Williams, of Williams and Bay Pumping Service, is to engage the public and discuss the issues involved with septic systems.
The free forum will be held at noon on Sept. 13 in the lower level of the Leelanau County Governmental Center.