Michigan, the great lakes state?

Resource links provided at the end of this article.

Water Resources Coordinator, Seth Gibson

When you think of the State of Michigan, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? While some of you may automatically think of ‘Better Made’ potato chips or superman ice cream, most of you probably think of our richest natural resource, water. The cold, deep waters of Lake Superior all the way to the warm, shallows of Lake Erie and every little stream and county drain in between that help make Michigan the freshwater capital of the world. People even refer to us as “The Great Lakes State” due to our land mass making contact with five out of six Great Lakes. But are we really the great, lakes state?

To sum up the current state of our water quality in one word, it’s crappy. The Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy sets thresholds for activities under certain concentrations of E. coli in the water. The threshold for total body contact is 300 colony forming units (cfu) per 100 mL of water and partial body contact is 1000 cfu per 100 mL of water. This means that once you have a concentration of 300 cfu or greater you shouldn’t swim or do activities where you come into direct contact with the water, and at 1000 cfu you should avoid things such as boating and swimming, and, generally, don’t touch the water at all. The fact that water samples taken from Michigan waterways routinely come back over 1000 cfu with several sites averaging (30 day geomean) well over the partial body contact standard, should make any resident that utilizes Michigan’s waterways angry. Even more surprisingly, DNA analysis on samples have determined that a large portion the E. coli is human sourced.  Due to the nature of E. coli and the sampling results, the best explanation for the concentrations of it in rivers and streams is failing septic systems.

This is largely because Michigan is the only state in the country without some kind of enforceable standard that septic systems must be held to. Yes, you read that correctly, the state with a majority of our country’s fresh water does not require on-site wastewater treatment systems to be maintained. While some counties manage them on a local level, only a handful of Michigan’s 83 counties have instated some sort of legislation to establish an enforceable standard. The Barry-Eaton time-of-sale or transfer (TOST) ordinance is commonly used as an example of what not to do in local management – the ordinance was repealed in 2018 on the grounds that it was more costly than it needed to be.

Cost seems to be the only parameter that comes up in conversation about septic systems, not the fact that 2,566 (27%) of septic tanks evaluated required corrective action with 243 of them discharging untreated waste onto the ground surface just in two of Michigan’s counties (from the decade of Barry-Eaton TOST data, see link below). Without a statewide standard to hold septic tanks to, the problem will get worse as septic systems age and continue to degrade.  

The most popular counterargument for any local or statewide code is the cost of replacing a septic system or drain field. Though this can be expensive, the one-time cost is still less than most people will pay in sewer bills over the life of the system. More importantly, the focus should be on who is currently covering the cost of the failing systems — anyone that utilizes Michigan’s waterways,  sources drinking water from rivers or irrigates with surface water.

The problem is only going to progress as time goes on unless we can make a change in the way things are currently done. As the great philosopher Aldo Leopold once said, “The land ethic is a product of social evolution because nothing so important is ever ‘written’…it evolves in the minds of a thinking community.” Can we come together as a community and help ensure that we stay the great, lakes state?

Lake Huron – Hammond Bay Biological Station, June 2016