The Septic Factor...

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

By DAVID GREEN

There’s no question in Scott Miller’s mind that water quality problems are abundant in Lenawee and Hillsdale counties.

As a staff member of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) surface water division, Miller is often called out to look at a contaminated drain, runoff from a field or a questionable discharge from an industrial site.

The vexing question Miller often faces is determining the source of the problem.

His office has confirmed 19 illegal discharges from area dairies in recent years, and in each of those situations the cause was clear. But it’s not always that easy.

Two weeks ago, for example, Miller responded to a call about foul water in the Rice Lake Drain at Haley Road. The site is downstream from the Haley Road Dairy. A lab report indicated E. coli bacteria levels so high they were given the status of “too numerous to count.”

“The water was pretty impacted,” Miller said. “It was really black. There are some problems out there, but at this point, we don’t know what the problem is.”

The condition of the water made Miller suspect that a septic system could be part of the puzzle. He spoke briefly with the owner of the dairy, who hadn’t applied manure to his field for several weeks.

“He has a tile that originates near the facility, but he’s not the only one draining into the Rice Lake Drain,” Miller said.

Similarly, foul water was observed in the Rooney Drain at Bear Creek—also near the large Hartland Farms dairy. Discharges from manure applications have caused problems before in the area, but this time Miller wasn’t  entirely sure. It’s obvious there’s a problem—with E. coli too high to count and dissolved oxygen levels too low to support aquatic life—but in this situation, too, Miller isn’t ready to jump at the obvious conclusion.

“Again, I have concerns we may have some septic system failure,” he said.

Septic problems

In 1990, about 30 percent of Michigan homes were served by on-site septic systems, according to Lenawee County Environmental Health Director Mike Kight. Of those approximately 1.2 million systems, the DEQ suggests that at any one time, up to 10 percent of those systems are failing.

Kight doesn’t see the issue as a huge problem, but he knows faulty systems exist, particularly in older rural homes. No inspection of the septic system is required when a house is sold, he said, and records of how a system was installed don’t exist.

“If you take an isolated farming area with old homes, you might see more,” Kight said.

Miller thinks there’s more to it than that.

“I think it’s a much larger problem than people want to admit,” he said. “Slowly but surely I think we’re moving in that direction [of tackling the problem].”

He expects the DEQ will work with local health departments for corrective action.

Over the summer a problem was spotted near VanderHoff II dairy on US-127. A discharge from the farm was suspected, but in this case it turned out to be the septic system at the older home where the farm owner lives.

That home owner was like a lot of others: He didn’t know where his septic line emptied and he didn’t know there was a problem.

Sometimes a septic problem is obvious, such as the Lime Lake area in Hillsdale County.

“We know for a fact that Prattville Drain is contaminated with human pathogens,” Miller said.

The drain empties into Lime Lake, and that body of water already has its own problem stemming from the septic fields of the homes around the lake. Add to that some confirmed discharges from an area dairy farm and the problem is multiplied.

Steve Todd of the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency talks about how sewage disposal practices have changed over the years.

“Now we find it appalling,” he said, talking about situations such as in Prattville where raw sewage flows into a drain. “Back then, it was an improvement from the back yard outhouse. Now we need to go a step forward.”

Sewer projects are planned for both Prattville and Lime Lake. That should take away the human element, Todd said, except for the fertilizer and pesticides many lake owners use to maintain a well-manicured lawn.

Todd says his office addresses septic problems when they’re discovered. A neighbor might spot a discharge from a pipe. People in a canoe will occasionally find an outlet along a river. Someone hiking along a stream comes across a drain with water that smells like sewage.

“When a new well goes in, we ask about the septic system to keep the two separate,” Todd said, “but we don’t routinely drive down roads.”

That chore is handled by another group.

Volunteer monitors

Maintaining water quality requires an exhaustive effort and there’s not enough DEQ personnel to get it all done.

“As an agency, we’re very understaffed,” Miller said.

In addition to his own department’s efforts, Miller relies on data provided by three other sources. The DEQ is looking at 10 sites in Hillsdale and Lenawee counties through a special program studying impaired water bodies.

A second set of data comes through a Lime Creek watershed study coordinated by the Hillsdale County Community Action Agency.

The group that drives the roads looking for problems is a volunteer effort. Measurements of the oxygen level in streams are taken and samples are collected for E. coli analysis by a laboratory in Jackson.

The data collected by the volunteers—in conjunction with information obtained by state environmental agencies—helps form an important baseline of information to evaluate future water quality conditions, Miller said. It’s also served to identify several problem sites.

“The data has been valuable to us,” he said. “In fact, it has led to the identification of three illegal discharges, two from farms and one yet to be determined.”

Complaints filed by the group prior to their data collection have led to numerous other documented illegal discharges, he added.

“Their data is an important screening tool to evaluate water quality and move forward to resolve potential problems,” Miller said.

Todd agrees.

“It’s good there are organizations concerned about the environment,” he said. “Everybody’s land use can have an impact in the watershed.”

That group could also lend a hand in solving the dilemma that Miller sometimes faces, because knowing the nature of the contamination is essential to creating a solution.

When E. coli bacteria is detected in a stream or lake, there’s often no way of knowing whether it originated from a residential septic system or from an agricultural tile—except by turning to an expensive DNA analysis.

The “impaired water body” study that got underway in the spring will take a look at the DNA of pathogens in the Lime Lake area. In addition, the volunteer group has some funding set aside from a Sierra Club grant for DNA testing. They’ll take action once appropriate sites are determined.

They’re expecting to find much a much higher percentage of contamination from cattle than from humans.

“Failed septic systems are a concern,” said Janet Kauffman, a Hudson area resident who collects weekly samples, “but if you look at the big picture, they’re a small part of the current problem. The amount of untreated animal waste going on fields here is equivalent to a city of 300,000. Rural septics are few and far between.”

For example, she said, the population of Medina, Hudson and Wright townships combined in about 3,600 people. Even if half of those septic systems fail—far more than the estimated levels—the bacteria problem from those would represent only a small fraction of what is being observed in area waterways.

“We’ll certainly know more when we begin DNA sampling,” she said.

Miller will welcome that information, also.

“If we can find a problem and track it back to the source, it’s pretty straightforward,” Miller said.

All too often, that’s not the case, and the perplexing question—is it septic or is it agricultural—sometimes remains.

    – Sept. 25, 2002 

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