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Collaborator content: Local governments search for funds to fix failing septic systems

Editors note: This story first appeared in Great Lakes Echo

Regulations have been made, legislation passed and enforcement tightened.  Yet leaking septic tanks continue to threaten human and environmental health.

The rules are well-intended, said Sandra Shaefer, a septic tank coordinator for Minnesota’s Dodge County. But the failing conditions of many septic systems make them hard to administer.

Coming up with funds to fix the problems is an increasing challenge for health officials battling the pollution that comes from the failing systems that serve homes without sewers. Several local governmental in Great Lakes states are rising to the challenge.

Several years ago, the Dodge County required failing systems to be upgraded prior to the sale of a house, Shaefer said.

“We hoped to arrest the problem at that point when we were sure there was money exchanging hands,” she said.

But county officials realized that few people had the money to make costly repairs and that septic pollution would continue even under tight surveillance.

In 2009, Shaefer’s team administered grants to assist low-income homeowners in upgrading septic systems discharging waste to the ground and surface water.

The money comes from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, a state program that seeks to protect land, forests and water sources.

Last year, the grant assisted four homeowners and more assistance is expected this year.

Contamination from faulty septic systems has been a long-standing problem in the county mainly because the region has a thin layer of soil — less than two feet between the drainfield and the water table – making underground water at risk of pollution, Shaefer said.

Walworth County – Wisconsin

In Wisconsin, nearly all counties participate in a similar program that is but federally funded.  Walworth County which has been a participant since 1982 and has assisted close to 500 homeowners in repairing or install new systems, said Rick Dorgay, the county’s enforcement officer for sanitation.

The program funds a portion of the cost of upgrading systems that are leaking wastewater to the ground and surface waters and bedrock.  Those backing up waste to homes aren’t funded.

Applicants must earn less than $45,000 a year and occupy their property more than half the year.

The county has seven large and popular lakes, and policies to ensure that they stay clean and healthy, said Dorgay.

“A lot of systems around the lake don’t have pollution problems because properties around the lake are mandated to be in a maintenance program enforced by the county,” he said.

The program requires all the 16,000 to 17,000 septic systems around the lakes to be pumped out or inspected at least once every two years.

“It’s like maintaining a car,” Dorgay said.  “If you don’t check and change your oil regularly, your engine will fail.”


In Michigan, Bay County recently started a revolving loan fund for homeowners with faulty septic tanks.

“It’s a very low-interest loan and a lot of times people will not have to pay on it until they are selling or refinancing their homes,” said Joel Strasz, the county’s public health manager.

The new program has received seed funding of close to $100,000 from the Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network, Bay Area Community Foundation and most recently from the Dow/PIRGIM Settlement.

County officials have  applied for more federal funding from the Great Lakes Regional Initiative Fund, said Laura Ogar, Director of Bay County Environmental Affairs and Community Development.

Though the county had previously enforced its sanitary code that requires a failing septic system to be repaired or replaced in a timely manner, officials realized that wasn’t solving the problem.

“A lot of times people get a bill of $8,000 from septic tank installers and they just don’t know what to do,” he said.

Replacing a septic tank ranges between $5,000 and $10,000, but could go higher, Strasz said.

“We definitely have had problems of bacteria in Kawkawlin River and the coastal areas and this is just one way of dealing with the reality of the situation,” he said.

The county also has lots of older housing with pipes leading to ditches or just ending “somewhere”, he said.  Many times people living in such homes don’t know where their tanks are located or how they are working.

In the last four to five years, the county has experienced elevated bacteria counts in its lakes, Strasz said.  Septic wastewater and agriculture runoffs are suspected but the county hasn’t determined the culprit.

This loan system will only benefit owners of septic systems adjacent to the surface waters, Ogar said.

“This is a real practical step to help reduce pollution in Saginaw River and other rivers around us,” Ogar said.  “If people can’t afford repairs, we in Bay County feel the responsibility to step in and provide solutions.”


Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series of stories about pollution from septic systems. Other stories:
Failing septic systems an increasing health concern
Bill would restrict septic waste disposal bans, cut costs

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