We’re not going to stop raising a stink about Michigan’s lax septic rules until we see some meaningful movement.
Puns aside, this is serious business.
OK, maybe a few more puns, but stick with us here.
A recent meeting of Leelanau County commissioners once again reminded us of the state’s woefully inadequate oversight of systems that rarely receive a whiff of public attention until something goes awry.
Commissioners there have been mulling a county-wide ordinance that would install new oversight of the systems that act as underground sewage treatment facilities for most of the region’s rural homes. Those local board members have spent the past year talking about new rules, but they’re divided over what kind of inspections would be appropriate.
It seems like just the type of issue that should garner lots of attention in a county surrounded on three sides by beautiful, clean Great Lakes water and dotted with many pristine inland lakes.
Some support requiring septic system inspections anytime a home is sold.
Others seem committed to ensuring as little oversight as possible.
And they’re not alone.
Indecisive or slow-to-move county and township elected officials are toying with potential catastrophe, but their indecision and the hodgepodge of regulation it creates is only a symptom of the real problem.
Michigan is the only state in the nation where there is no statewide regulation requiring some sort of septic system inspection. It’s an ironic, if not embarrassing, deficiency for a state with its fate so intertwined with the health of its freshwater resources.
Instead, long ago, state lawmakers decided to roll the responsibility for such fecal-related matters downhill to local governments. That shifting of responsibilities turned the state into a patchwork of locally forged regulations or no oversight whatsoever.
Officials in Kalkaska County, earlier this year, considered repealing an ordinance there that requires septic inspections as part of home sales.
Likewise, in Grand Traverse, Antrim and Leelanau counties, some townships require septic inspections each time a home is sold. Many do not.
Yet, even point of sale inspections seem inadequate considering many homes could sit for decades without changing hands.
Benzie County leads the way in the region — officials there estimate their 27-year-old Well and Septic Evaluation Program has put eyes on as many as 85 percent of the county’s septic systems.
That system of oversight has served as a first line of defense against failing systems — in the early years 9 percent of systems inspected were failing, a percentage that dropped to 4.4 percent during recent years.
Think about that for a moment. Nearly 10 percent of systems inspected in the state’s 66th most populous county were failing when officials launched an oversight program. If that number holds, our state could be sitting atop of a huge problem with the estimated 1.4 million septic systems operating statewide.
Failing septic systems can contaminate both the groundwater we drink and surface water like lakes and streams, something no Michigander should feel comfortable with.
At least in this case, what we can’t see can and will hurt us.
Michigan has a serious problem with aging buried infrastructure, and septic systems are no exception. And it’s time for lawmakers to take a stand and install protections for our state’s freshwater.
Because continuing to ignore our underground infrastructure someday will land us knee deep in a problem none of us can stomach.