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Lake communities are seeing disturbing changes that might be connected to failing septic systems

James Rintamaki

Lake communities are starting to see disturbing changes that might be connected to failing septic systems.
As part of a series by the Great Lakes News Collaborative, Lester Graham reports some residents want to investigate what can be done.
Others don’t, because the answers could cost them a lot.

Robin Sims spends summers at her place on Elk Lake in Antrim County. She said in the spring three years ago, her husband called her out to the dock. 

“I went out there and he says, ‘Look at this.’ He says, ‘Something's not right here. We have things growing that shouldn't be growing.’”

She says the crystal-clear blue water of Elk Lake has never had plants growing on the bottom or algae floating on top until recently.

But, as early as 2008, E.coli bacteria was at alarming levels in parts of Elk Lake. E.coli is associated with feces. That human fertilizer encourages vegetation growth.

That prompted the Village of Elk Rapids to build a new sewer system in 2016 to replace its old wastewater plant. The new plant has the capacity to eliminate remaining private septic systems in and around the village.

Robin Sims’ research indicated the most likely culprit causing plant growth was septage leaching from faulty systems. She started a campaign in Milton Township to persuade the township board to perform a feasibility study to see what should be done.

The Milton Township Board voted that down.

“No one's asking you to get out there and lay pipe. We're just wanting to get answers, options and costs.”

Milton Township Supervisor Lon Bargy favors a feasibility study. He remembers when roads around the lake were just two-track lanes. Most people just visited their cabins for the summer. He said now those cabins have been enlarged to be retirement homes.

“Four or five bathrooms. And if they're staying here year-round, you can't use just a little septic system anymore.”

And today houses completely line the shores of Elk Lake.

The township has a law requiring a septic system inspection when a house sells. But many of the old homes have been in the same family for decades and have never been inspected.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded 25 years ago, that septic systems are a practical solution if a centralized sewer system is not available.

The state of Michigan plans to offer about $35 million in federal loans to deal with failing septic systems. That is just a drop in the old septic tank compared to what’s needed. State regulators estimate there are 330,000 failing septic systems in the state. Even if the costs were a relatively low $10,000 to repair each one, that would amount to $3.3 billion.

Most of Michigan doesn’t have a “point of sale inspection” requirement like Milton Township does. That results in a really inefficient enforcement program. Local health departments have to actually see a problem before they can do anything.

“So, unless there’s sewage backing up into their basement or sewage pooling in their yard, they don’t know if their septic system is failing.”

Molly Rippke is an aquatic biologist with the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. She says state authorities’ hands are tied.

“We don't have a statewide sanitary code. That's something that the Legislature would have to address, so we can only do what we have the authority to do.”

At Elk Lake, Elk Rapids’ Village Manager confirmed its system does have the capacity to handle all the homes around the lake.

Milton Township Supervisor, Lon Bargy, says an engineer told him it might be cheaper if the township built its own system. Besides part of Elk Lake, the township includes parts of other large lakes and a bit of Grand Traverse Bay.

The only way to know what’s best is for the township to get a feasibility study. Robin Sims said she’ll keep campaigning for that.

“I'm going to fight until this gets done,” she said. “I'm not quitting.”