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The Great Lakes region is blessed with an abundance of water. But water quality, affordability, and aging water infrastructure are vulnerabilities that have been ignored for far too long. In this series, members of the Great Lakes News Collaborative, Michigan Radio, Bridge Michigan, Great Lakes Now, and Circle of Blue, explore what it might take to preserve and protect this precious resource.

Searching for help. Where can homeowners get money to fix failing septic systems?

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
When septic tank systems fail and homeowners don't have the money to fix it, some resort to illicit outlets like this one. Toilet paper and human waste flow out of this pipe after homeowners illegally connected to it.

In Michigan, the state estimates there are more than 330,000 failing septic tank systems. They could be contaminating lakes, rivers, and groundwater. State government agencies don’t have the authority to do much about that. And many homeowners don’t have the money to do much.

Cindy Krohn and her husband are on fixed incomes. Five years ago, they were in the process of buying a home in Linwood, a small unincorporated community on Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay.

“We noticed there was some drainage coming out from the crawlspace. The inspector found that and they then drained and cleaned out the septic tank, and we thought that was everything that needed to be done because then it was fine for a few months,” Krohn said.

But then, they noticed a sewer smell every time they did the laundry.

The system is failing. At a minimum it will cost $10,000 and up to $20,000. Krohn says they don’t have that kind of money and can’t afford a loan. All they can do is have the septic tank pumped out every few months.

“That's $250 each time they come out,” she said.

J. Carl Ganter
Circle of Blue
Precast concrete septic tanks are hooked to perforated pipes in trenches of gravel and sand to distribute wastewater throughout what's called a drain field.

This kind of story is frustrating to some of those in the septic system business.

“Why we have governments that can't protect these things and can't work together enough to protect our waterways just baffles me. I don't understand that,” said Rick Throop, President of the Michigan Septic Tank Association.

He runs a septic service company in Macomb County. There the county requires a complete septic system inspection before a house is sold and the seller has to fix any problems.

“So if you put a point of sale program in place. Those things don't happen, houses don't slip through the cracks. People don't get screwed in the long run because the problems are found before the property transfers,” he said.

Very few counties or health departments require that. There was legislation a few years ago to try to do that statewide and find some money to help people or communities who need the help. That legislation was blocked.

Among those opposed was the Michigan Realtors Association. Brad Ward, Vice President of Public Policy and Legal Affairs for the organization. He said the Realtors support an inspection system, just not one at the point of sale because the group does not feel it’s efficient or fair.

Here’s the argument: Let’s say you’ve lived in your house for 20 years. The house next door has sold three times in the last 15 years.

“Your septic system has never been inspected where mine has been inspected three times in that same 15 year period,” Ward said.

The realtors think a law requiring regular inspections every five or ten years makes more sense.

For most homeowners in the state, none of this is a concern. They’re hooked up to a municipal sewer plant. They pay a monthly fee. Not only is their wastewater cleaned up, it’s disinfected before it’s released into the environment.

Owners of septic systems don’t really think about the cost as long as the drain doesn’t back up. Few of those homeowners put aside money for the eventual moment the system fails. A failing septic system threatens public health because that wastewater is not disinfected. Pathogens such as e. coli bacteria and viruses can get into sources used for drinking water.

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
A stormwater drain is filled with something other than rain water runoff. Evidence points to illicit connections from septic systems that have failed.

In a worst case scenario, homeowners who cannot afford septic tank system repairs will pipe it to nearby ditches or make illicit connections to storm drains.

The current legislature is not planning to implement statewide inspection regulations. Instead, it’s considering using some of the American Rescue Plan money to help fix the immediate problem: those septic systems that are failing right now.

Senator Rosemary Bayer, a Democrat, said it amounts to $140 million dollars.

“And includes revolving loan funds for individual homeowners. It includes grant funds for communities under 5,000 residents.”

That sounds good, but of that 140 million, 35 million dollars is for failing septic system loans. That falls far short of the at least $3.3 billion needed to fix just the current failing septic systems. That’s based on the 330,000 failing septic systems each needing $10,000 in repairs. The more likely scenario is a much, much higher amount.

But Senator Bayer said you’ve got to start somewhere and there is bi-partisan support. It’s part of a sweeping package of bills senate Republicans proposed and Democrats supported to help fix many of Michigan’s water and wastewater problems.

“We do now have a program. Well, I should say we did approve funding in the Senate. There's still a negotiation going on with the House.”

But even if it’s approved and the governor signs it, it doesn’t really solve the problem for Cindy Krohn. She said even a low-interest loan seems out of reach and she knows other people in Michigan are in the same place. She’s searched the internet for some kind of help and called every office she can think of for advice.

“There needs to be some kind of program because majority of people don't have $20,000 plus to repair septic system. Most people don't have that. And it's something that you have to have. You can't just put it off for years. And nobody has any answers. And we just don't know what to do.”

Beside the revolving loan program, the legislation, if it’s passed, could give counties some grant money to assist homeowners in repairing septic systems. It will still mean those homeowners have to come up with thousands of dollars or even tens of thousands, depending on how much work is needed to fix the septic system.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Radio from 1998-2010.
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