Failing septic systems among the headaches in Michigan’s most pristine lakes

“Properly operated and maintained decentralized systems are an option for rural areas across the country. There are reasons to move to a centralized system for sites typically located near lakes. Typically, small websites don’t have a lot of expansion options,” he explained.

In a previous report, one of the state’s top water experts said that even a new sewage system is not without problems. Unlike a sewage system, septic tanks do not disinfect. Bacteria and viruses can get into the environment.

“Every time someone gets sick, these organisms end up in our septic tanks. These are small enough to get through the ground in many cases, allowing them to reach groundwater. They could also reach surface water,” said microbiologist Joan Rose of Michigan State University.

Another problem that those building new homes or home extensions sometimes find is that they don’t have enough land for a septic tank large enough for their larger home. You need to buy land somewhere nearby and build the drainage field there. This means that waste water is pumped onto the construction site. Land near the lake is expensive.

Ladouceur is working with local health authorities to determine if a septic system is causing a problem. Most parts of Michigan do not have a point-of-sale inspection requirement. This leads to a truly inefficient enforcement program.

“It’s underground infrastructure, so people don’t see it. So unless sewage is backing up in their basement or sewage is pooling in their backyard, they don’t know if their treatment plant is failing. They might even have a septic system hooked up to a field plate or to a storm sewer and aren’t even fully aware of it,” said Molly Rippke, an aquatic biologist at EGLE.

“We don’t have a national hygiene law,” she explained. “That’s something the legislature would need to address, so we can only do what we’re empowered to do.”

Meanwhile, many lakeside communities are beginning to notice changes.

“We get a lot of complaints from homeowners about things that usually start with algae or a pesky plant ailment, because that too shows. You can’t see the E. coli or the bacteria, which are the pathogens that could cause disease,” Rippke said.

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