Rights vs. Regulations: When it comes to septic system codes, property rights remain a big barrier

March 02, 2021

University, community, state

“The reason why septic systems got attention in the ‘70s was (researchers) were noticing around many of our lakes, they were getting greener, and typically the lower half of Minnesota is pretty heavy ag,” said Sara Heger, a researcher and instructor with the University of Minnesota’s Onsite Sewage Treatment Program.

The university started doing septic system training in 1974. Some counties started requiring certification, but the state code was voluntary until 1996 when Minnesota’s state legislature made state rules and licensing mandatory.

“We are the primary education provider to become certified, so that really grew our programs,” Heger said.

Among the research the university is conducting related to septic systems is alternative technology for when conventional systems might not work, the movement of contaminants of emerging concern through systems, impacts on the water table and soil conditions, and an ongoing research relationship with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, looking into aspects like septic systems at truck stops.

The University of Minnesota also is involved in efforts to help educate the public including free workshops, educational videos and online advice on many aspects of septic system ownership, including cost, questions to ask professionals, household tips and even a section specifically for real estate agents.

“On a day-to-day basis, the homeowners are the operators,” Heger said. “We can have the best regulations, the best systems in the ground, but if they’re not taken care of properly, they won’t last and they won’t treat with optimum efficiency.”

She related sewer systems maintenance to other things people have to account for on a regular basis – giving your car an oil change or maintaining the roof of your home.

“If your roof leaks, it could ruin your house,” she said. “If the septic system leaks, it could be leaking sewage into your home or it’s essentially polluting the environment. So the ramifications of that system not working are really high, but I think out of sight, out of mind to a lot of people.”

Minnesota’s efforts around septic systems seem to be working – the estimated percentage of septic systems compliant with state law “increased from approximately 74% in 2010 to 81% in 2019,” according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s 2019 Subsurface Sewage Treatment Systems annual report.

COVID-19, cost, climate change remain as barriers

The 2021 Michigan Onsite Wastewater Conference was canceled due to COVID-19 and Wastewater Education’s efforts to create a set of regulations were postponed, but the pandemic has had a harsher effect on the industry than some missed events.

“This has pretty much become a very back issue for the public health department,” Best said. “Ultimately this falls under the public health code. It has to be part of the public health code, and they just don’t have the time. Right now, they don’t have the time and the inclination and the manpower to deal with anything other than COVID.”

Even if the public health departments get involved, cost remains an issue.

“The problem is, we can enact all of the legislation, all of the local rules that we want, that says if your home or property is in this condition, you will, you shall, you must do this amount of upgrade. But we haven’t provided them any funds to do it. And if they had the funds to do it, they would probably have done it in the first place,” Best said.

The goal for Wastewater Education is an affordable and manageable system that can include a fund to help people upgrade their systems when needed.

That latter part is something that could become a reality soon. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the MI Clean Water Plan last fall, which includes $35 million for a low-interest loan program for homeowners replacing failing septic systems.

And climate change, while a concern for many people, is still a topic with many unanswered questions regarding its impact on septic systems.

“Climate change is something we all have to keep in mind in the septic system industry, but it has the potential to impact us all differently across the U.S.,” Heger said. “There are concerns about more moisture and how that may impact soil treatment, but there is an added benefit of warmer soil which is beneficial for septic systems. Regulations across the US need to be updated to reflect our current understanding of science and climate change should be a factor. How much of one remains to be seen but having conservative regulations will allow for more flexibility.”

Capacity remains an issue for the industry when dealing with other external factors like climate change. The people more concerned over its impact on septic systems are currently the people who live close enough to the lakes to be affected by the high water levels, but the industry otherwise mostly has its hands full, according to Stephens.

“I would suggest that climate change is not a driving factor right now for the onsite industry, because we have so much catching up to do that it’s not impacting our onsite systems, with the exception of those that may be impacted because we’re losing shoreline around the Great Lakes,” Stephens said.