Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Lake Shore Septic or Sewer Question

My Grandma Mimi, as a child, with a bow in her hair, on a mule at Castle Rock in Colorado.

I had hoped to base my campaign for Leland Township Trustee on opportunities for economic development in our township, with a serious effort at expanding broadband internet in our township. Instead I have been talking about septic systems and sewers because that's what people want to talk about.

Last month's Leland Town Board meeting featured a spirited discussion of the role of septic systems, sewer systems and government. This is not a new topic. We had questions about sewers and septic systems at the Leland Township candidates night. There was more talk about septic system inspection at the county candidates night. I was surprised to hear some of the candidates for county board saying that inspection of septic systems was a township issue. The county health department regulates the building of septic systems. The county Board of Commissioners has been trying for over a decade, unsuccessfully, to draft regulations that would require some sort of septic system inspection. The regulations as they stand right now do not require any septic inspections, not even when property changes hands.

Of course, a person would be nuts to buy any property without having the septic system inspected. But many lake front properties change hands within families, passing from one generation to another. According to Michigan State University, the life expectancy of a septic system is 20 to 30 years; septic haulers estimate more like 40 years. Eventually the gravel in the drain field becomes clogged with small particles and the drain field will no longer accept water.

Replacing a drain field is a big expense and it may be impossible for a lake front property owner. Every time you add a bedroom or a bathroom the required drain field area goes up, and overall standards are stricter these days. The septic system that was installed fifty years ago to serve a two bedroom seasonal home is much smaller than what is required to serve the same home after multiple additions and upgrades. If, over the years, that two bedroom cabin has gained another bathroom, turned a few porches into bedrooms, and installed a furnace, you may well be trying to serve a four bedroom year-round residence with an antiquated system designed for a two bedroom summer home. According the the Leelanau County Health Department's codes, a three bedroom home on a site with sand loam, a typical lake front soil type, requires 1050 square feet of drain field. It must be no less than 10 feet from any building, and the lowest part of the drain field must be at least four feet above the maximum high water table. The whole system must be 50 feet from the lake, 50 feet from any well or spring, and 10 feet from the property line.

If a homeowner can't fit a modern septic system onto their lot, they may be able to use a mound system. The county health department defers to the Michigan DEQ on these regulations; DEQ requires that the mound, essentially a thick, above ground drain field fed by a pump instead of gravity, be located over 100 feet from the lake.

Property owners who find that they cannot build a new drain field usually opt for a holding tank. The health department will allow other alternatives, but they are considered experimental and the property owner is responsible for the cost of regularly monitoring the performance of these systems and for replacing them if they don't work.

If a holding tanks seems like a less dicey option, it is certainly not cheap. We have friends who are renting a lakeside holding tank house while their new home is being built. They have two elementary age boys, not a demographic known for excess bathing, they are actively conserving water, even to the point of only flushing every third or fourth use, but they are still paying $270 every three weeks to have their tank pumped.

Without a requirement to inspect septic systems, it is easy to just procrastinate. A homeowner can procrastinate, saying "Well, the system only floods the yard when our house guests stay too long." My son-in-law, Jordan Fehrenbach, worked for his father's septic pumping company, Bay Pumping, when he was in high school. Although it is recommended that we pump our septic tanks every few years, he said that many of the calls he answered were from people who had procrastinated until their systems didn't work right anymore. "People just don't know much about their septic systems. The subject doesn't come up in polite conversation, so there's not much opportunity to learn about it."

A township can be pressured to procrastinate, worrying that sending out a questionnaire about a possible new sewer district could be construed as "drumming up business" for the township. The people who think that government is already too big jump on sewer projects as an example of "big government getting bigger." They decry "a shotgun approach" and encourage us to wait until we know each septic system goes bad before deciding that there's a problem.

I heard Leelanau County Commissioner Melinda Lautner say these lines at the Leelanau County candidates night. Unfortunately, she is also one of the county commissioners standing in the way of any sort of septic inspection. If you don't have inspections, you may procrastinate until your well, or a neighbor's well, is contaminated. You may procrastinate until your family, or your neighbor's family, falls ill from hepatitis or blue baby syndrome or dysentery.

Or we could use a conservative, common sense approach. In Leelanau County, we have required permits for all septic systems installed since 1972. Since it is now 2008, we could expect that any property that does not have a permit on file probably has a septic system that is living on borrowed time. It is easy to drive around North Lake Leelanau and see plenty of homes that are on lots too shallow to site a septic system 50 feet away from the lake, or too low to site a system four feet above the maximum high water table. These people need a sewer or holding tanks, whether they want to think past the flush or not. Both sewer systems and holding tanks are expensive options, but they are both better options than sticking your head in the ground while your effluent seeps into the lake.

David Marshall, Democrat for Leelanau County Commissioner District 6, described the common sense approach this way: "You fix the bridge before it collapses." Most of my conversations with township residents express the same expectation that county and township government should be proactive and prudent in protecting our lakes and groundwater with appropriate inspections of septic systems and construction of sewers where necessary.

The talk at last month's meeting was of creating a new sewer district to serve Leland Township's lakefront properties, with its own assessment so that the lakefront property owners were paying for their service, not the township at large. There was a chicken-and-egg discussion about whether we could assess interest without knowing the cost, and whether we could estimate cost without knowing interest. I'm afraid the discussion ranged far towards the philosophical while ignoring the idea of aging septic systems as a simple math problem.

Congratulations if you've followed me this far! You've earned the right to know why I would preface this piece with a photo of my grandmother on a mule. Writing this piece reminded me of the stories that my Grandma Mimi used to tell of growing up in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Every summer all who could afford to would flee the city, taking the train west or north, to escape the waves of cholera and typhoid fever that plagued American cities in the early 1900's, largely due to poor sanitation. Mimi was riding that mule in Colorado, where her family spent summers. Lake Leelanau has hosted city refugees for over 100 years, with travelers at the turn of the last century taking the train to Perrins Landing the south end of the lake and the ferry up the lake from there. Here in Leland Township, where our century-old resort economy is benefiting us in so many ways, it is imperative that we protect our reputation for clean, safe water.

Note: 9/4/08 The ads that appear on this blog are chosen by web robots, or "web bots", programs that attempt to read each article, decipher its content, and then assign relevant ads to each piece. I earn a negligible amount of money from these ads, but I keep them because I find it interesting to see what an artificial intelligence thinks of my writing.

Today I see that I am advertising several "miracle cures" for septic system failure. That these ads appeared so quickly, and that there are so many of them, is further evidence that many people worry privately about their septic systems, even if they don't talk about them around the water cooler. Every reputable source of information about septic systems, from MSU to my son-in-law, tells me that those products that claim to fix an aging septic system are bunk, and may actually make your problems worse. Feel free to read the ads for your own amusement, but please don't think that I, or anyone else, is endorsing these products.

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