Got water? Time of sale septic inspections can protect water quality: Part 1

Counties, townships can protect surface and groundwater by adopting time of sale septic inspection ordinances.

Sewage discharging directly to creek. Photo credit: Marquette County Health Department
Sewage discharging directly to creek. Photo credit: Marquette County Health Department

Michigan’s freshwater resources are incredible assets that are unmatched on a global stage. The state’s water strategy, Sustaining Michigan Water Heritage, A Strategy for the Next Generation, identifies nine broad goals and 62 recommendations to protect water resources and enhance the state economy based on those resources. Goal two of the water strategy is that “Michigan’s water resources are clean and safe.” The first two key recommendations in the goal are to “Protect drinking and source water from contamination and spills” and “Pass a statewide sanitary code and inspection requirements.”

Many Michigan residents would agree that water is Michigan’s greatest asset. While all residents of the state have the opportunity to help protect water resources, some residents have the potential for more impacts on water resources based on water use and property ownership. In rural environments that are not served by sanitary sewer and municipal water, residential and commercial septic systems and water supply wells can be a threat to surface and groundwater, and public health, if not adequately installed, maintained, and retired.

Septic systems do not last forever. In fact, the average age of septic systems that fail is around 20-25 years. Failing septic systems contribute pathogens to waterways including parasites, bacteria, and viruses that can cause communicable diseases through direct or indirect body contact or ingestion, and also contribute phosphorus, a nutrient that can cause excessive aquatic plant and algae growth and depletion of dissolved oxygen in surface waters, see What’s the Point and Non-Point in Water Quality?. As the recommendation in the water strategy makes clear, there is no statewide law requiring evaluation and maintenance of existing systems. Typically, septic systems are only evaluated at the time of permitting or during major building additions.

The Michigan DEQ 2013 Statewide Failed Sewage System Evaluation Summary Report detailed 4,138 failed single family septic systems reported by local health departments that year. Statewide, the top four probable causes of system failures were soil clogging (19 percent), root intrusion (13 percent), hydraulic overload (11 percent), and undersized system (10 percent). However, public health officials believe reported septic system failures represent only a fraction of the total number of failures statewide and many go undetected or remain unreported for years. According to Marquette County permitting database, in Marquette County, between 2009 and 2012, nearly 40 percent of septic systems being replaced were actively failing to the ground surface. These failed systems represented only those in which property owners were willing to voluntarily address the problem by contacting the health department.

While federal and state laws regulate water and wastewater to an extent, Michigan local governments have many tools available for ‘filling the gaps’ where federal or state regulations do not apply. There is no doubt, local government has an important role for water quality protection. Local government is empowered to protect public health, safety, and welfare through several different state enabling statutes. One tool that a relatively small number of counties and townships have employed is adoption of septic maintenance regulations. The primary goal of such regulations is to protect water quality by reducing the amount of phosphorus entering lakes and streams through groundwater. A May 2013 Bridge Magazine article notes that only 11 of 83 counties in Michigan have local ordinances that address failing septic systems through operation and maintenance inspections.

Also referred to as time of sale (or point of sale) programs, the approach is to require inspection of on-site septic systems when properties change hands from one owner to another. Most often, water supply wells are also required to be inspected as a part of such programs. These programs require an evaluation to be performed, a determination by the regulatory agency (often the local health department), and, if failing, maintenance or remediation to be completed before the property is transferred to the new owner. In other words, a determination by the local regulatory agency that the septic and well is functioning adequately for the use of the property and the characteristics of the site is required before the county register of deeds can transfer title to the property. During winter months property transactions would not necessarily be held up. Instead, the seller may be required to create an escrow account to ensure available resources to correct a problem if identified during a spring evaluation.

Part 2 of this article explains more about time of sale septic inspection ordinances, the experiences of several Michigan counties, and the pros and cons of such a program. Michigan State University Extension offers several educational programs covering best practices for how homeowners and local governments can protect water quality.

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