LANSING, Mich., April 21, 2023 — State Reps. Phil Skaggs (D-East Grand Rapids) and Carrie Rheingans (D-Ann Arbor) and Senate Majority Floor Leader Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) announced their intent to introduce legislation next week to create a statewide septic code, which would help protect water quality across the state.
Background: Michigan is the only state in the nation without uniform standards governing how onsite sewage treatment systems are designed, built, installed and maintained. Additionally, according to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), Michigan has between 1.3 and 1.4 million onsite septic systems, and 35% of its residents rely on them; however, many of these systems are failing or inadequate due to the lack of a uniform statewide code. With no statutory way to define and alleviate failing septic systems in much of the state, these systems can lead to contaminated water seeping into nearby bodies of water, leading to increased levels of E. coli, other bacteria and algae blooms. This can cause illness if consumed or contacted, which can result in closures of lakes and beaches. The bills will establish state standards for septic systems, also known as “onsite wastewater treatment systems” and require regular inspections of those systems (with the inspection results maintained by EGLE) and establish a technical advisory commission within EGLE to advise the department, Legislature and local health departments on the most current scientific standards for septic tanks.
“Michigan is home to abundant freshwater resources. We owe it to our environment and the people of Michigan to protect our ground and surface water. Instituting a statewide septic code — something that 49 other states have done — is critical to achieve this goal,” Skaggs said. “West Michiganders deserve a healthy Grand River, Thornapple River and Lake Michigan. We need uniform, statewide regulations in place to ensure wastewater systems are in good working order, so Michiganders have access to pristine and clean water. If we are serious about being the Great Lakes State, we need a statewide septic code.”
Rheingans, discussing the importance of a statewide septic code, said, “As a public health expert, I know that clean and safe drinking water is imperative to ensuring the public’s health, not only for the people of Michigan, but also for the many forms of agriculture that depend on our freshwater. River Raisin, the Huron River, and dozens of lakes in my district — and thousands of rivers and lakes across the state — will gain additional protections with this important legislation that protects and advances public health.”
In the Senate, Majority Floor Leader Sam Singh will sponsor the legislation. Singh commented on the importance of the legislation, explaining, “As someone who represents a district that includes many homes who use septic systems, it is important to me to ensure that we have commonsense, scientifically sound laws that protect our soil and water quality. I look forward to continuing to work with Rep. Skaggs and other stakeholders to advance these bills through the legislative process.”
Supporters of the legislation come from a variety of stakeholders. Commenting on the need for the code from a local perspective, Kent County Health Department Director Adam London said, “Michigan is uniquely blessed with extraordinary surface and groundwater resources. Their quality is essential for human health, native species, economic growth and sustainable agriculture. Michigan is also uniquely lagging in policies to protect this precious resource from contamination originating from failing septic systems. These bills, and the ensuing legislative process, represent the next step forward in developing better policy for Michigan’s future.”
Megan Tinsley, water policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, said, “Michigan has debated solutions to our mass septic spill problem for over 20 years — longer than the average septic system is designed to last — but has never acted. Thanks to Rep. Skaggs and his colleagues working on this issue, we can. This legislation provides the framework and solutions to prevent aging and failing septics from contaminating the water Michiganders use to drink and play in.”
The lack of statewide septic code can also cause uncertainty for those looking to buy a home in areas of the state where pollution from septic tanks can pose a risk to drinking water sources. Citing the need for the code, Natalie Rowe, 2023 president for the Michigan Realtors noted, “Protecting Michigan’s water and private property rights can be accomplished together. With a statewide septic code, we can finally end the inconsistent patchwork of regulation that fails to safeguard Michigan’s rivers, lakes and streams.”
The legislators look forward to moving these bills through the legislative process with broad input from stakeholders. The bills are expected to be introduced in the House and Senate next week.