Michigan’s septic systems are regulated locally by districts created through the local Health Department and counties. These health districts all have regulations for siting and installing new septic systems. Back in 2016, when the project started, there were also 11 counties in the state that required septic system inspections at the time a property is sold. Other than those time of transfer ordinances, there is no legal requirement for septic systems to be looked at again, in Michigan, once they are installed. To begin their research, the Watershed Council interviewed local officials in three Northern Michigan counties to better understand how these ordinances work.
For the next step in the research, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council looked at what other states do to regulate septic systems. Staff interviewed state and local officials in several other states to collect information on the types of septic ordinances used in other places. The Council discovered that other states use regulations that typically fall into three categories: (1) time of transfer inspection ordinances, (2) mandatory pumping ordinances, or (3) mandatory inspection ordinances. After compiling the information, a report was created to demonstrate to local governments in Michigan what else is possible. The report presented a menu of policy options for the local governments to consider.
To raise awareness on the lack of septic system regulations in the state, the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council began the second phase of their implementation plan by reaching out to state and local governments officials. By reporting their findings, many other local groups became alarmed by the lack of septic regulations in Michigan. The Watershed Council and other groups across the state began lobbying and communicating with their state and local officials. The Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council leaders hosted local government informational meetings for communities to communicate the harm unattended septic systems can inflict on the environment and to encourage communities to adopt policy measures to protect their waters.
The Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council’s work was funded by multiple grants totaling $50,000: one grant from a community foundation supported initial research and two Clean Water Act 319 grants from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which typically fund the implementation of stormwater management plans in Michigan communities. The first Septic Question report for Charlevoix County was so well-received the Watershed Council was able to garner financial support to complete three more county reports. Project leaders indicated that it was not difficult to find funding for research and implementation work on this topic, as funders in the Midwest are concerned about lake level and contamination issues. The biggest expense was staff time, followed by printing and materials costs for disseminating the reports and plans. The Watershed Council used one full-time staffer and two interns.
The research for The Septic Question report and implementation of management plans for four communities took approximately 18 months to complete.
Equity and Justice
The reports did not explicitly address equity and justice. That said, the Watershed Council works with local governments to advocate for septic installation and maintenance policies that would not burden homeowners. The Septic Question report also highlights five other states that provided financial assistance to homeowners through their septic programs. Recently, the Watershed Council formed a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force to address these issues on this topic and others.