Rules & Regs: Survey Finds Michigan Support for More Water Regulations

Also in this month's regulations update, the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association pushes for an increase in federal funding for onsite system repairs

Rules & Regs: Survey Finds Michigan Support for More Water Regulations

A recent survey by a Michigan nonprofit found strong public support for more regulation to protect water quality.

Survey work was done in the fall of 2019, and results were released in February Bridge magazine. The magazine is owned by the Center for Michigan, which also commissioned the survey and describes itself as a think-and-do tank.

The survey consisted of a formal poll done online by a consulting firm, an informal online poll of magazine readers and community meetings where people could discuss issues.

There were 20 questions in the survey, and they covered general water topics and some specific ones, such as a proposed underwater oil pipeline between Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas and the sale of groundwater as bottled water.

For this story, Pumper looked at the broader water and onsite system questions. A copy of the report can be found here: www.bridgemi.com/sites/default/files/water_report_final.pdf.

One question noted that Michigan does not regulate the maintenance of private wells and septic tanks and asked whether the state should increase regulation. Of respondents in the formal poll, 63% say it should while 37% say it should not.

One question asked whether the state should generally have stronger regulations to protect water quality, and 77% of respondents in the formal poll say yes, while 21% want regulations to remain about the same and 3% say rules should be relaxed to promote economic growth.

Also in the formal poll, 68% of respondents say the general water quality of the Great Lakes is great or good, and 54% say the quality of inland lakes and rivers is great or good.

“It obviously shows people care,” says Dendra Best, executive director of WasteWater Education in Traverse City, Michigan. “It’s a great start and opens the door to a more in-depth examination.”

She applauded some of the questions for laying out a factual background. The one about bottled water, for example, noted Nestle pays the city of Evart $3.50 per thousand gallons of water, the same rate as any other business or residential customer. Yet in a question about whether farms should be required to reduce runoff in order to protect surface water quality, she says there seems to be an assumption that the state is full of small family farms. In reality, the state’s ag sector is controlled by only four or five large companies, Best says.

The survey falls down in who it contacted, Best says. “If this is a road map for state policy, there are some pieces missing from this. It seems to be weighted toward the main centers of population.”

Almost half of responses in the formal poll came from the heavily populated southeastern corner of the state that includes Detroit and the surrounding urban area. The next largest fraction of responses came from the area around Grand Rapids — the state’s second largest city. These two areas combined account for about two-thirds of all responses. It’s easier to get responses from people in urban areas, and those are the people who tend to join environmental groups, Best says.

Her part of the state — the northern half of the Lower Peninsula — accounted for only 8% of responses in the formal polling. There is a similar lack of representation of other rural areas, she says, yet it is these areas that the urban poll respondents go to for their water recreation.

Best also notes the absence of young people. Of formal poll respondents, 54% were age 55 or older. People 18 to 34 comprised 21% of respondents. Yet these are the future policy wonks and researchers and should be reached, she says.

Also missing is minority representation. In the formal poll, 82% of respondents were white, but only 2% were African American (Flint is about 54% African American), and less than 1% were Native American, Hispanic or Middle Eastern. The largest minority response came from Asians at 9%. They comprise 3.4% of the state’s population.

Another interesting result of the survey was the difference between the formal poll results and the community conversations, Best says. In the question about regulation of private wells and septic tanks, support for more regulation increased from 63% in the poll to 85% in the community conversations, and opposition dropped from 37% in the poll to 15% in the conversations. It shows what can happen when people have more time to think, Best says.

Eric Casey, executive director of the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association, looked at the report and focused on the question about onsite systems. “It’s not that surprising to read about a survey where homeowners are looking for regulation on water infrastructure broadly,” he says.

The water crisis that struck Flint as well as Michigan’s lack of a statewide septic code (it is the only state without a statewide code) probably sensitize Michigan residents to those issues, Casey says. Yet their responses fit with surveys and other anecdotal evidence from other parts of the country, he says.

“There is a great desire to get more government involvement in providing infrastructure and regulating it as well,” he says. For onsite systems, involvement mainly means funding for repairs and replacements because current sources of money are very limited. There is also support for more regulation among industry professionals, he says. For example, the Maryland Onsite Wastewater Professionals Association has partnered with other groups to push the legislature for stronger licensing.


NOWRA Pushes for Federal Funding for Onsite System Repairs

NOWRA has been pushing an increase in the amount of money available for onsite system repairs, but that won’t be happening this year, says Eric Casey, NOWRA’s executive director.

Although there is now $5 million available, it will all be used for wells because the U.S. Department of Agriculture did not have rules ready for the onsite grant program, he says. Those rules should be in place for the next fiscal year, which begins in October. But the money will not necessarily be available immediately if Congress does not pass the required appropriations bill before the fiscal year begins, he says. It is common for the appropriations bill to be late as lawmakers negotiate, and that is even more likely in this election year, he adds.

NOWRA and seven other organizations (Groundwater Foundation, National Association of Wastewater Technicians, National Environmental Health Association, National Ground Water Association, Rural Community Assistance Partnership, Water Systems Council, and Water Well Trust) have written to the Senate and House appropriations and agriculture committees asking for $20 million for wells and septics in the next fiscal year. This money would be distributed as grants to nonprofit organizations for revolving loan funds to help homeowners, Casey says.

NOWRA and the Rural Community Assistance Partnership have been working on a similar program through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Casey says. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, has introduced bipartisan legislation for this.


Gutted Ferry System in Alaska Creates Problems for Septic Pumping

Cuts in the ferry system serving the islands of southeastern Alaska created a problem for residents: no access to pumpers.

In the past, the city of Gustavus could count on up to 18 visits annually from pumpers based in the capital city of Juneau. But ferry service to the island stopped in January, reports Alaska Public Media.

“The ferry system is the best way to get the trucks out there for these communities that don’t have sewage treatment plants,” says Trevor Richards, a co-owner of Juneau Septic Systems, which serves Gustavus.

“The only other option is to go with the landing craft, which tend to be $500 per hour. That’s the quote I’ve been given,” he tells Alaska Public Media. That would lead to very large costs for customers, he says. Ferry round trips are about $800.

As this is written, no ferry service for Gustavus is scheduled before mid-June.


Wyoming Lawyer Requests Investigation of Two Commercial Septic Systems

As a result of his research on compliance with state and county water regulations, an environmental lawyer recently asked for a state investigation of two commercial septic systems in southern Teton County in Wyoming.

Dan Heilig, senior conservation advocate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, says the systems at the Hoback Market and Hoback RV Park do not appear to have the proper permits. A records request to the Department of Environmental Quality produced a dead-end document and led to his request, he tells the Jackson Hole News & Guide.

“Here’s a letter from DEQ saying, ‘You need to be permitted under DEQ,’ but there’s no follow-up from DEQ,” Heilig says. “The record just goes dark. What happened?”

Business owners say they have the required documents for their systems.

Heilig says this is not personal, but he is looking at every septic permit in the county.


Wisconsin Legislation Could Help Residents Fix Failing Onsite Systems

Two bills in the Wisconsin State Legislature would extend the life of the Wisconsin Fund, which helps people pay to remedy failing onsite systems. Officials in Crawford County, in the southwestern part of the state along the Mississippi River, support the extension.

The fund is scheduled to end in 2021, according to the joint newspaper website www.swnews4u.com. The bills would keep the fund going until 2023.

A sanitation and zoning technician says about 800 of the 3,600 onsite systems in Crawford County are not compliant with regulations. He anticipates submitting between 50 and 55 applications to the fund for 2020. If all are approved, county residents would receive about $300,000 to help remediate systems.


Taylor County, Wisconsin, to Create Loan Fund to Repair Septic Systems

The Taylor County (Wisconsin) Board of Supervisors in February voted 15-2 to create a revolving loan fund to remediate failing onsite systems. The county, located in the central part of the state, has about 4,600 systems, and an estimated 2,000 of those do not have permits, news outlets report. The fund will be $300,000.

One of the supervisors who voted against the loan program says the county should not act like a banker and says he is concerned about what the county would do to people who do not or cannot repay loans.



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