A Lake Leelanau home septic system.

Lake Leelanau Septic Systems 101: Protecting the Watershed from the Ground Up

The last Watershed Wednesday highlighted some simple tips lakeside property owners could use to help protect the water from the shore. This week, Lake Leelanau Lake Association (LLLA) Stewardship Committee Member Rob Mackenzie digs deeper into how you can protect the Lake Leelanau watershed from the ground up. That’s right — we’re talking about Lake Leelanau septic systems! We invite you to read our latest blog to learn more about septic systems and tips for keeping these systems healthy to protect the environment, human health, your property, and the Lake Leelanau watershed.

What is a Septic System?

A septic system is an option for property owners’ water management in locations that do not have a sewer system. In septic systems, groundwater wells provide water to a building, whose waste flows through the drains to underground tanks. The solids sink to the bottom to be partially decomposed by natural bacteria. The water stays on top at the level of the drain field outlet and exits to the drain field. The sewage of partially treated wastewater from the tank outlet is distributed across a drain field. Current drain fields are specifically constructed to safely treat the sewage as it percolates into the water table.

Would a septic system work for your property?

The septic system construction and maintenance requirements have continued to change over time. Septic systems designed in the past could have the septic tank in the front yard 20 feet from the lake. These designs do not feature a drain field, and the outlet pipe ended at the beach, which greatly endangered environmental and human health.

Septic system regulations vary depending on your location. Michigan is the only state without a statewide sanitary code — it is up to counties or townships to develop and implement rules regarding wells and septic systems.   

An alternative to a septic system is a holding tank. These underground tanks serve as an enclosed repository for all home waste. When the tank is full, the homeowner must contact a pumping service to empty the tank. Holding tanks are traditionally more expensive to maintain.

Septic tank system infographic.

Septic System Health

Homeowners can keep their septic systems healthy in many ways, which benefits environmental and human health and can preserve one’s property value.

If managed properly, a healthy septic system takes care of itself. Consult with your pumping service regarding recommended pumping frequency to maintain a healthy system. Depending on usage and system capacity, the pumping frequency may be every one to four years.

In addition to routine pumping, users can protect their Lake Leelanau septic system health by watching what they put into it. You should avoid putting things into your system (i.e., down the drain or toilet) that might affect the natural bacteria. Such items include:

  • Grease (food or other types),
  • Oils,
  • Anything non-biodegradable,
  • Pharmaceuticals,
  • Chemical drain cleaners or chemical-based cleaning products,
  • Dental floss,
  • Diapers or sanitary materials,
  • Plastics,
  • Paint thinners,
  • Solvents,
  • Photographic chemicals,
  • Herbicides,
  • Insecticides, and
  • Unnecessary solids (i.e., many food scraps, coffee grinds, etc.).

Septic Inefficiency or Failure – Cause and Effect

Septic system inefficiency or failure is identified as a leading cause of water quality deterioration in Leelanau County. This is especially problematic if your property is on or near a body of water, on a slope, or in an area with a high water table. 

The leading causes of septic inefficiency or failure are inadequate design relative to current use or insufficient maintenance. Symptoms of septic distress include:

  • Foul odor inside or outside the home.
  • Washouts on the drain field (shown below).
  • Poor/failed plumbing performance. 

The US EPA identified that the most serious effects of septic inefficiency or failure involve contamination of surface, ground, and well water with disease-causing pathogens and nitrates. Contamination like this may increase algal growth and lower dissolved oxygen levels in a lake environment. This can negatively impact fish habitat, water quality, and the general enjoyment of the lake. Poor septic health can lead to poor lake health!

Images show the damage and distress unhealthy septic systems can cause to your property.

Tips for the Lake Leelanau Septic System Homeowner

Traditional homeowner's insurance may not cover Lake Leelanau septic inefficiency or failure from neglect that causes injury.

Should septic inefficiency or failure occur on your property, you may not qualify under updated regulations for a permit for repair. In that case, you would have to abandon the existing system and install holding tanks.   

If the septic system does not conform to the local health code, the property owner may not be able to obtain a permit for additional construction or property transfer.

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