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Learning to be SepticSmart, but what was with Ralph's compass?

Septic system being worked on

During SepticSmart Week, Hugh McDiarmid, Jr., EGLE's communications manager, shares his personal septic experience.

Ralph from Ralph's Septic Service had a compass affixed to the bill of his ballcap. Every few years he'd be summoned to pump the septic tank from our family's cottage in Northern Michigan. It was impossible not to stare at his compass, and wonder . . . why?

Until a few years ago, Ralph and his compass were the only firsthand knowledge this suburban kid had of septic systems— but that changed in a hurry with the recent passing of both my parents and my in-laws. I'm now responsible along with my wife for the upkeep of two Northern Michigan cottages and two aging septic systems.

I'm learning that managing the septic system is more than a simple obligation to keep raw sewage from backing up in your bathtub – which is a really nauseating I can assure you — but a responsibility that affects every Michigander who cares about water quality. SepticSmart Week seems like a good time to share a bit of what we've learned.

Substandard and failing septic systems allow you-know-what to seep into lakes, ponds and streams. It's more than just disgusting. It contributes to coliform bacteria which can make people sick and force beach closures. It's also a nutrient-rich smorgasbord to algae and weeds that increasingly foul our waters. A Michigan State University study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2015 found that septic systems were the primary contributor to elevated levels of fecal bacteria in 64 Michigan watersheds.

It's not just surface water at risk. Contaminants and bacteria from septic can foul drinking water wells located near or downgrade from leaky septic systems. Local health departments in Michigan regulate how far septic systems and drinking water wells must be from one another. And they do. Last month I drew a site map with the location of a new water well we need to have drilled at my in-laws' cottage in a very remote section of the Upper Peninsula. Since it was right next to the old well, I figured I was safe. But the district sanitarian reviewing the plans noted, "Proposed well location . . . shall be installed six feet closer to lake than location identified by (homeowner) to achieve 50-foot isolation distance to septic tank." Thank you district sanitarian!

It should be noted that it's not just our poo that ends up in the water. Anything that goes down the drains — soaps, cleaning chemicals, antifreeze for winterizing plumbing and medicines can all end up mixing with the aquatic ecosystem.

Michigan is the only state entirely within the drainage basin* of the world's greatest freshwater ecosystem, and yet it's the only state without a uniform statewide sanitary septic code to ensure the health and safety of people and the environment. Most of our home-rule state's 83 counties have stepped forward to fill this void with good septic rules and up-to-date regulations, but local politics and economics can sometimes create hurdles for even better protection. This is way it's important not only to contact your local health department for information about septic regulations, but to ensure that you are doing your part to protect water quality regardless of whether the law says you must.

Both of my families' septic systems are close to lakes, and both are old. That's not unusual in Michigan, with roughly 1.3 million septic systems ranging from individual homes to systems that serve businesses, subdivisions, condominium developments and small communities. The proximity to the water means we have an added stewardship responsibility to ensure we aren't polluting the lakes used by our friends and neighbors.

I've learned that despite having older septic systems that we are doing some things right. For example:

  • Cottage Rules have always been to put nothing down the drains and toilets besides toilet paper and you-know-what. No dental floss, hygiene products, Kleenex, expired drugs, or anything else that go in the trash instead. The in-sink food disposal is also off-limits. Food scraps either go in the trash or compost. Grease is drained into a container, frozen solid and disposed of in the trash.
  • Following our parents' lead, we regularly have the septic tanks pumped to remove solids that could both contribute to system failure and add nutrients to the drain fields.
  • We use water-efficient showerheads and faucets to reduce the amount of water pushing nutrients into the drain fields.
  • We make sure not to drive over the septic tank and field, and that contractors with heavy equipment avoid that area. It’s partly to protect the system, and partly because my father would come back from the dead to haunt anyone who did so!
  • Although it doesn't directly relate to septic, we maintain a thick buffer strip of vegetation at the water's edge, which can help intercept and remove any nutrients that flow downgrade during heavy rainstorms, absorbing nutrients and contaminants from rainstorms that would otherwise enter the surface water unchecked.
  • We don't plant trees in the septic field, as the roots could interfere with its efficiency.

To help homeowners like me understand how their septic systems work and how to properly monitor and maintain them, EGLE maintains an impressive list of resources. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also has good guidance on maintaining safe systems.

The past year has been a learning experience for me and my family. We feel like we are, indeed Septic Smarter during this, SepticSmart Week. Why Ralph had the compass on his ballcap though, is one of those mysteries destined never to be solved.

*There is a tiny portion of Michigan in the Western Upper Peninsula that is in the Mississippi drainage basin.

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