Clear lakes, happy swimming

One action 1.4 million Michigan homeowners can do to reduce nuisance aquatic plants.

Toxic blue-green algae have been making headlines in recent years, but lake weeds have been a familiar nuisance for many Michigan inland lake and pond dwellers for decades. All aquatic plants require phosphorus to grow so to limit the spread of weeds and algae blooms, find ways to cut off their food supply. Just one pound of phosphorus can support 300-500 pounds of algae. While not the only contributor of phosphorus to a lake, even properly functioning septic systems supply some phosphorus in their effluent. Therefore, by the simple act of regular septic system maintenance, homeowners with septic systems can help keep our beaches among the finest the world over.

Homes that are not connected to a community sewer system manage the water and waste that goes down their drains through their septic systems. In Michigan, this is 30 percent of all households. Recent estimates show that of the 1.4 million Michigan households with septic systems, 130,000 are failing due to improper maintenance, lack of inspection or because they need replacement, troubling news for possible impacts on groundwater, streams and lakes. A few homeowners hold the false belief that their system only needs to be pumped out when they notice something is wrong such as a toilet backup or foul odors coming from the ground. Unfortunately, once a septic system is noticeable it is past due for regular maintenance and is likely that the system is failing. Homeowners can ensure that they are not polluting nearby wells or lakes by learning a few simple facts about how a septic system works and if they haven’t done so in the last 3-4 years, call a licensed septage hauler near them to inspect and pump their system.

The cost of pumping out a septic tank can average from $200 to $300 and will not only prevent environmental contamination, it will also save homeowner’s money in replacement costs. New systems can cost between $5,000 - $20,000. With proper maintenance, septic systems can operate correctly for 15-40 years.

Michigan State University Extension has been conducting education on septic system maintenance for homeowners. A follow up survey of attendees in 2014 show that over half of the attendees have improved how they maintain their system since attending the training. Many attendees were surprised to learn that grease, fats and oils should not go down the drain and that there is no need for septic additives. A follow up survey a year after the training found that the training helped them better maintain their systems. For example, two thirds of attendees started spacing out their laundry throughout the week to reduce the amount of water that their system would have to handle at one time.

Good home septic system maintenance is necessary for a healthy and enjoyable lake. If you own a home with a septic system and you’ve already gotten it recently pumped and inspected, your local lake association may be able to use your sharing simple things homeowners can do to help keep the lake free of nuisance weeds. If you don’t live on a lake you may want to join your local watershed organization.

Construction, inspection and maintenance is under the jurisdiction of County Health Departments. Michigan is the only state without statewide regulation. Some think that the lack of statewide regulation on septic systems puts our waters in too vulnerable a position. Michigan’s newest water plan, Sustaining Michigan’s Water Heritage: A Strategy for the Next Generation once again calls for the Legislature to develop and implement statewide inspection requirements and a sanitary code. Documents such as this are important because they guide how the state spends tax dollars in the future.

For further information, see EPA’s SepticSmart educational materials or MSU Extension online class Introduction to Lakes. Enrollment for 2015 class ends October 1. 

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