Amid Michigan’s water infrastructure woes, lawmakers renew push for a state septic code

By: - May 15, 2023 3:51 am

Residents in a Grosse Pointe Park neighborhood throw out damaged belongings after the flooding on July 1, 2021 | Ken Coleman

Michigan Democrats are taking another pass at introducing a statewide septic code, continuing a decades-long effort in the Legislature.

Despite the issue’s bipartisan history, Michigan remains the only state without a septic code, with recent efforts failing to gain traction within the Legislature. As the state contends with flooding and sewer backups, addressing individual septic systems is yet another element in addressing aging infrastructure and water quality issues.

“We are the Great Lakes State. It is embarrassing that we are the only state in the entire union that doesn’t have a statewide septic code,” state Rep. Phil Skaggs (D-East Grand Rapids) said.

The newest set of bills were introduced on April 27, with Skaggs and Rep. Carrie Rheingans (D-Ann Arbor) House Bills 4479 and 4480, respectively, in the House and Sen. Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) introducing the identical legislation, Senate Bills 299 and 300 in the upper chamber. While the bills are currently awaiting committee hearings, 

Skaggs said the goal is to hold hearings and a committee vote before the Legislature begins its summer recess at the end of June.

In addition to ensuring septic tanks are inspected every five years, the bills would also establish a database on inspections and  an inspector certification system. A technical advisory committee would also be created to advise the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) on septic system management standards.

According to a statement from the Michigan Environmental Council, while 30% of Michiganders use septic systems to dispose of their waste, only 11 of Michigan’s 83 counties have septic codes.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer greets Reps. Phil Skaggs and Will Snyder before presenting her budget proposal to the Michigan House and Senate Appropriations Committees on Feb. 8, 2023. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Additionally, EGLE estimates that roughly 330,000 systems in the state are failing, leaking waste into ground and surface waters like lakes, streams and even drinking water. 

“If we want to live up to our ideal of ‘Pure Michigan,’ we need to be making sure that we have clean lakes, clean rivers, clean creeks and clean groundwater. And the way to help assure that is the case is to lessen the number of failing septic systems right away to a minimum,” Skaggs said.

Sean McBrearty, Michigan legislative and policy director for Clean Water Action said the issue with failing septic systems is ultimately an issue of E.Coli in our water.

E.Coli is a type of bacteria that is used as a water quality indicator by the state of Michigan. According to EGLE, E.Coli’s presence means water has been contaminated with feces. Additionally E.Coli can infect humans through ingestion or contact with skin, leading to health issues such as diarrhea, giardia, hepatitis or cholera.

EGLE previously reported 9,000 miles of streams in Michigan were considered impaired, or unsafe for swimming. However, as the department continues to conduct more monitoring, the number is expected to grow to 37,000 miles, or half Michigan’s total stream mileage.

In addition to acting as a carrier for E. Coli, the nutrients in feces can also contribute to the overgrowth of algae, creating even greater health risks if the algal blooms produce toxins, said Megan Tinsley, water policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council. 

Faulty septic systems can also leak nitrates into the water. These compounds are tasteless and odorless and are a suspected carcinogen, Tinsley said. 

However, septic codes have proven effective in mitigating beach closures and other issues resulting from E.Coli. In the 1980s, Ottawa County in West Michigan implemented a septic code to protect property values along the beach following closures due to E.Coli contamination. In the years since that policy was introduced, septic failure has decreased from a 30% rate to a rate of about 10%, McBrearty said. 

This ordinance is similar to those implemented in other counties in that it only requires inspections at the point of sale for houses, McBrearty said.

The newly proposed septic code would require inspections every five years. The most recent statewide septic code attempt introduced by former state Rep. Jeff Yaroch (R-Richmond) in 2022 would have required inspections at the point of sale. However this approach has been challenged by realtors

Michigan Realtors, an advocacy organization which represents the state’s real estate professionals, has been involved in state septic code discussions for the past 20 years, according to Brian Westrin, the organization’s general counsel. Western said the organization has always viewed point of sale inspection requirements as a Band-Aid approach, as these policies assume that properties being sold are the ones causing issues. 

“We’ve always pushed back against point of sale programs, because as I mentioned, they do kind of view the transaction as the thing that will protect groundwater, and that’s just not the case,” Westrin said.

Michigan realtors previously supported another effort introduced in 2018 by former Reps. Abdullah Hammoud (D-Dearborn) and Jim Lower (R-Cedar Lake), which would have implemented periodic septic inspections. 

Skaggs said taking a periodic inspection approach follows simple science. While some homes sell every few years, other times people stay in their house for 30 or 40 years.

Singh agreed, noting that a point of sale policy would allow faulty systems to go unnoticed for years until the property is sold.

While some properties may have initially been built as small cabins that are only used for a few months of the year, some of these homes have been replaced with larger vacation homes that see greater use and are even used for short-term rentals like Airbnb, Tinsley said. This places a greater strain on septic systems and can lead to septic overflows, causing issues in nearby bodies of water.  

While Michigan Realtors supports the new proposed septic code in concept, Westrin said they would like to see more details around the frequency of inspections, the timeframe for getting an inspection relative to a complaint, or an expectation of the property owner to have an inspection completed. 

By drawing support from realtors Skaggs hopes to generate support across the aisle. 

“I am hopeful that the support from the realtors will open some doors in Republican offices, but I think we all love Michigan. We all have a deep attachment to the water,” Skaggs said. 

He added that he expects it will be a “bipartisan effort, but I also understand that we have a pro-conservationist, pro-environmentalist majority in both chambers and a governor [Gretchen Whitmer] who fits that, as well.”

Rep. David Martin (R-Davison), minority vice chair of the House Natural Resources, Environment, Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee, had no comment on the bills. Sen. John Damoose (R-Harbor Springs), minority vice chair of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, could not be reached for comment due to scheduling. 

We are the Great Lakes State. It is embarrassing that we are the only state in the entire union that doesn't have a statewide septic code.

– State Rep. Phil Skaggs (D-East Grand Rapids)

In addition to support from realtors and environmental advocates, public health officials have also expressed support for the bills. However this support came with concerns of feasibility, as an increase in inspections creates funding and staffing concerns.

“Overall, we are supportive of this concept. … We just want to make sure that when a bill is passed, that it’s set up for success and the implementation will be successful, as well,” said Norm Hess, executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health, which represents all 45 local health departments in the state. 

In addition to potential issues applying codes at the public health level, Hess also raised concerns on how faulty systems will be addressed after they are identified in an inspection. 

“When you find a septic system that is failing, it’s a very expensive endeavor for a homeowner. So we don’t want to have a law in place that’s going to punish people, but not be part of the solution,” Hess said. 

While a $35 million fund was created last year to provide low or no-cost loans to remedy failing septic systems, Hess doubts the fund will be enough to fully address the issue.

“I think that [money] will go very quickly. And even though it’s supposed to replenish, we don’t know yet the exact extent of the problem, so it’s kind of hard to tell how much money would be needed. But it’s a step in the right direction,” Hess said.

When crafting the new regulations, Singh said resources and funding have been key in developing the new bills.

“Part of the conversations that we want to have is how do you create that, fund it, support the locals and others who will be doing the inspections,” Singh said. “Then the other piece is when you find a faulty system, it’s fairly expensive, especially for people that are on fixed incomes.”

Skaggs noted that the bill has two angles to address: policy and funding.

“There needs to be funding to help locals either transition from point of sale to periodic [inspections] or to just get a program up and running,” Skaggs said.

While the Legislature will have to consider the cost for counties to implement programs to address new septic regulations, once these programs are started licensing and fees will hopefully make them self-sustaining, Skaggs said. 

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“So one financial bucket would be startups to the locals. The other financial bucket would be to fully fund a revolving fund for zero-interest or low-interest loans,” Skaggs said. 

Is the $35 million revolving fund enough? Probably not, Skaggs said. 

While it may take a few budget cycles to fully fund loans to citizens in need of septic repairs and replacements, not everyone will be inspected in year one, Skaggs said. 

However, lawmakers aren’t looking to rush these bills. 

“We have to do this right. … To me, there’s no scenario where we can’t do something, we just have to begin to solve this problem,” Singh said. 

“If we can begin to put the framework together, get some agreements in the fall, we can then begin to put resources into the following budget and get something up and running in a thoughtful manner that can be implemented with success,” Singh said. 

Skaggs said sponsors plan to continue workshopping the bills alongside stakeholders.

“The three of us wanted to introduce this set of bills to demonstrate that we’re very serious about getting this through this time. But that doesn’t mean that this is a bill that’s written in stone,” Skaggs said.


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Kyle Davidson
Kyle Davidson

Kyle Davidson covers state government alongside health care, business and the environment. A graduate of Michigan State University, Kyle studied journalism and political science. He previously covered community events, breaking news, state policy and the environment for outlets including the Lansing State Journal, the Detroit Free Press and Capital News Service.