Northwest Michigan Septic Policies

Outcomes and Conclusions

The Septic Question Report delivered a menu of policy options for decision makers, highlighting the advantages and disadvantages of the following pathways for addressing septic issues:

  • Pros and Cons of Maintaining the Status Quo
  • County or Township Time of Transfer Inspection Ordinances
  • Mandatory Pumping Ordinances
  • Mandatory Inspection Ordinances
  • Implementing Pilot Programs, Overlay Districts, and Septic Maintenance Districts

Prior to doing the report, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council helped pass a time of transfer Ordinance in Milton Township, in the Elk River Chain of Lakes Watershed. Since the publication of the report, Elk Rapids passed a time of transfer ordinance in the Tip of the Mitt service area and two others are in the process. Every year, the ordinances allow local governments to identify cases of failed septic tanks in need of repair. Under the ordinances, local governments now track how many inspections occur, if the inspections found anything problematic, and whether issues were corrected.


The most challenging barrier for local governments implementing septic ordinances in Michigan is the fact that local property rights advocates do not want any regulations that affect how individual parcels are managed or any regulations that put additional burdens on homeowners.  The other challenge was the fact that the state legislature has been reluctant to address this issue for a variety of reasons, including opposition from the state realtor lobby. That opposition claims (incorrectly) that time of transfer ordinances delay the sale of property. Local governments in Michigan overcame these challenges by coordinating with the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council to educate local leadership and residents, including support from local realtors.

Since the Watershed Council is still working with counties across the state, Grenetta Thomassey, the Council’s Watershed Policy Director, emphasized the importance of staying engaged and allowing the work to evolve as needed. She recommended keeping in mind that there is not necessarily a fixed-term associated with community engagement; while the reports and white papers are deliverables, local governments must continually educate constituents and give public presentations.

Questions for discussion

These questions are designed to inspire readers—especially those wanting to learn broadly about climate change solutions—to think critically about the case study on this page and encourage deeper, more meaningful conversations. A list of ERIT case studies that include discussion questions can be found on the Resilient Communities Case Studies page. 

  1. What can local governments do to keep residents informed about the importance of maintaining septic systems and the water quality issues that arise from their failure?
  2. Do you think regular septic system inspections should be mandatory, even for systems located on private property? Why or why not?

For more information about the septic system reports, contact:

Grenetta Thomassey
Watershed Policy Director
Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council