We come a long way at United Voice through the dedicated efforts of many in the Silver Lake community. Looking back this is the story of how we got here.
Part 1 – There is a need.
At Silver Lake the water quality is declining across time. There are of course good years and bad years that exaggerate the issue, but the general direction is that cloudier water appears sooner each recreational season. We also experience occasional algae blooms, excessive aquatic weeds and declining fish populations.
A recent multi-year study funded partially through Golden Township, by the U.S Geological Survey and Grand Valley State University analyzed water samples from the lake and surrounding tributaries to determine the nutrient loads contributing to the declining water quality. This research shows there is a relationship between Silver Lake’s water quality and the nutrient outputs from existing septic systems in our area.
While there are lake management efforts spearheaded by the Silver Lake Improvement Board (SLIB), their work is generally in reaction to immediate needs, and involves year-by-year items to promote lake welfare. Most recently Restorative Lake Services, headed by Dr. Jennifer Jermalowicz-Jones has been engaged to research and treat Silver Lake. The Improvement Board efforts are supported by our property taxes. Please know that the work of SLIB will not alone succeed in improving the water quality of Silver Lake, we as a community must do something to reduce the nutrients being introduced to the lake through the septic systems if we hope to stem the tide of our lake’s decline.
Part 2 – Where is the Problem?
Silver Lake United Voice believes that the decline in Silver Lake’s water quality is directly related to poorly maintained or out of compliance Septic Systems. So what are these a septic systems that are contributing to uncontrolled nutrient loading in Silver Lake? A septic system is a public health mandated utility that each property must maintain to treat household sewage, most commonly a tank to collect the solids in the sewage and a drain field where waste water from the holding tank is allowed to leach through the soil. Now we all know the sandy nature of the soil surrounding Silver Lake means that the drain fields quickly pass fluids directly into the lake’s water table. If every property had an effective well-functioning septic system we would not be seeing the nutrient load that’s present in the lake.
So, if we know where the problem is coming from how do we address fixing it? In reality there are only two viable solutions to reduce the septic system nutrient output into the groundwater from our household sewage –
1) Treat household sewage, or some part of that sewage, offsite away from Silver Lake – meaning building a community sewer system to move the waste elsewhere for treatment (bypassing the existing septic solutions and therefore the drain fields), or
2) Make sure all septic systems, new and old, are operating as effectively as possible – in other words to improve on-site septic systems making them cleaner in operation and therefore less likely to contribute to the nutrient loading that harms Silver Lake water quality. Relating to these two obvious options we know that concerning the first, Sewers at Silver Lake, several community efforts through the years have tried to mandate sewers and each has failed to reach broad support, primarily because of the cost involved to individual homeowners, and that cost has predictably gone up with each revival of the concept and will increase again should this solution again be sought. After the latest sewer system effort failed in 2019, the water quality issue of course remains, and a grass roots group of homeowners called Silver Lake United Voice began to explore into that second option – improving existing septic systems to reduce the nutrient loading that research shows is contributing to the health of our lake.
Part 3 – There is a response.
Silver Lake United Voice has a single mission, to improve the quality of Silver Lake water through effective septic system operation, and our approach is to not create a new solution to treat household waste like a community-wide sewer system, but rather to assure that the existing systems are correct and operating optimally and that they are maintained in this optimal state through regular inspection and repairs as needed.
Now this idea of septic system optimization only works if every septic system is improved…right? We all want to point the finger elsewhere and everyone knows of some ‘unnamed’ property owner who has the proverbial ’55-gallon-drum’ septic system that is both unapproved and ineffective in treating household waste. But, addressing only the worst septic systems is not an option, and we all need to work toward the common good with a long-term goal of reducing the nutrients that are being introduced to the groundwater and therefore the lake and if all property owners are not participating then we fail to substantially improve the lake’s water quality. So, how do we improve septic systems community wide at Silver Lake? We determine who is in charge and make sure that we have appropriate governmental actions to ensure that all septic systems are operating correctly. At Silver Lake the who’s in charge is our Golden Township Government, who manages our Septic Systems by way of ordinance. Looking at the existing ordinance Silver Lake United Voice think that some improvements are necessary to assure compliance with the ordinance and therefore lessen the impact of septic system discharge in polluting our lake.
Part 4 – UV’s Original Ordinance Update
We’ve already reviewed that Silver Lake United Voice is working to update the Golden Township ordinance that currently governs the septic systems at Silver Lake. And our current approach to this update is not our first. Silver Lake United Voice formed as a grassroots community driven effort to improve Silver Lake water quality through improved septic system oversight. Starting in the Summer of 2019 our group sought a wholesale replacement of the existing septic ordinance with a new very comprehensive ordinance fashioned after other Michigan communities who sought greater mandated public health results from local septic systems. A great deal of work was done by SL United Voice in creating this new ‘proposed ordinance’ the draft of which were presented by SLUV to the Golden Township Planning Board in January 2020. Why the Planning Board? Because it was the governing body that was designated by the Township Board to work with community members on any changes sought after the defeat of the sewer proposal in the Spring of 2019. The purpose of the January 2020 presentation was for SL United Voice to show their progress and request the Planning Board’s review and comments on the proposed ordinance. With the COVID pandemic encompassing most available public ‘oxygen’ in 2020, SLUV has yet to get a response from the Planning Board on its January 2020 presentation and without that response our team has reassessed their plan and have determined a new approach – to make common sense improvements to the existing ordinance to meet the public need of improved septic system oversite in Golden Township. This approach both simplifies and streamlines the earlier plan to ensure that the water quality in Silver Lake improves across time and sets us on a path for long term success.
Part 5 – UV’s Revised Septic Ordinance Approach
With the revised goal to make common sense improvements to the existing ordinance to meet the public need of improved septic system oversite in Golden Township Silver Lake United Voice started with the current regulation of septic systems in Golden Township which is – Golden Township Zoning Ordinance 15, Section 4.39, and is quite simple states –
“In order to protect significant surface and groundwater resources onsite sewage disposal systems, OSDS, must be pumped, inspected and approved as operating effectively and a form provided by the township is completed by a licensed sanitarian or licensed septic installer and copies submitted to the applicant, Zoning Administrator, and District #10 Health Department when any of the following conditions exist:
1. A zoning permit is applied for to add on to or replace an existing dwelling.
2. The parcel or any portion of the parcel the permit is applied for is within 500 feet of a lake, stream, body of water, or a wetland.
3. When a parcel or any portion of the parcel with an OSDS installed on it is within 500 feet of a lake, stream, body of water, or wetland is sold or exchanged.
4. A homeowner or business requests a system be pumped for maintenance or suspected failure.
If the OSDS fails this inspection it must be replaced by a system authorized by the District #10 Health Department.”
While this ordinance does apply to every property owner, it only requires that pumping and inspection take place under the very specific circumstances outlined in the ordinance; that 1) a zoning permit is requested, 2) a property within 500’ of the lake changes ownership, or 3) an obvious system failure is evident. So, in other words, no one is the wiser to the existing septic systems that operate marginally or not at all that continue to pollute the lake because no regular testing requirement exists. It is this lack of regulation ensuring effective septic operation for all property owners that Silver Lake United Voice is seeking to address.
Here’s our new proposal, three simple changes to Golden Township Zoning Ordinance 15, Section 4.39 to include language that would –
A) Test existing septic systems throughout the township once every five years – require every OSDS be pumped, inspected and approved for ongoing operation every five-years, and if repairs or replacement are required, they must be completed in strict accordance with District Health Department #10 (DHD#10) guidelines.
B) Require Advanced Septic Systems on all septic systems close to bodies of water – all properties within 200’ of a body of water must comply with DHD#10 Policy 900.502.1. This policy regards variances from prevailing DHD#10 sanitary code, in most cases this variance involved Advanced Treatment Units (ATUs) to assure effluent treatment to a higher degree.
C) Adding penalties for non-compliance with the ordinance – adding enforcement parameters to assure compliance that can include fines and legal actions, and that reasonable timelines be involved in such enforcement so that folks can’t ‘game’ the system. These are changes to ensure that all septic systems are regularly reviewed for proper operation and provides assurance that all property owners are in compliance, which in turn means that our lake lasts for generations to come.
Part 6 – What does this mean for Property Owners
What Silver Lake United Voice is proposing will affect all local property owners, requiring us to inspect our existing septic systems every five-years and to improve them if required. So what are our septic systems? For most of us, our septic is a simple gravity flow system with a holding tank that collects the solids of our household sewage and a connected drain field that distributes the effluent (liquid sewage) into the ground above the water table. It’s this last step that is most important to keeping our lake clean, because if our drain fields do not properly filter out the septic effluent these chemicals overload our lake water and continue to cause the slow degradation of Silver Lake’s water quality.
Getting back to our existing septic systems, for the most part our holding tanks are made of concrete and our drain fields are a series of porous pipes that distributes the effluent into the soil on our property. It’s the holding tank that requires regular maintenance, usually pumping them out by a licensed sanitarian every 3-5 years. If there is a property with particularly shallow ground water, for example some lakefront properties, you may have the drain field built above grade in a mound that provides the additional depth of effluent drainage before it reached the water table, and our lake.
If you have a conventional gravity system and your septic system is not within 200’ of a lake or stream, then your responsibility will be to maintain your system so that it passes inspection every five years. This maintenance will be regular pumping of your holding tank, which is part of the inspection process. While the change being proposed by SL United Voice effects all property owners, those with a septic system within 200’ of a body of water (lake, pond, stream, etc) will have an additional requirement. In these instances, District Health Department #10 Policy #900.502.1 will apply. This is a Health Department policy that applies to septic systems that have a greater impact on Silver Lake water quality because of the proximity to the lake. This policy outlines the variance process that affected property owners must follow in order to have an approved system, in most cases where a traditional gravity flow septic system is present this means that an Advanced Treatment Unit (ATU) will be needed. An ATU enhances a standard household septic system to provide greater protection to the environment through more thorough treatment of the household’s sewage. It’s this enhanced treatment that reduces the troublesome nutrients in the septic effluence that is harming Silver Lake.
Part 7 – What’s an Advanced Treatment Unit (ATU) and what does it cost?
If your property’s septic system is within 200’ of Silver Lake of a tributary to the lake and you have a conventional gravity flow septic system you may have to replace, or more likely, upgrade your existing system. The most common way to achieve the additional treatment within the septic system is to add an Advanced Treatment Unit (ATU). An ATU generally adds a treatment chamber to the septic’s holding tank where the ‘advanced treatment’ breaks down the nutrient overload that seep through the ground water to harm Silver Lake. The solutions that provide this treatment use aeration of the effluent and the addition of active bacteria to more quickly and effectively breakdown the dangerous nutrients.
Fortunately, for those properties required to upgrade to an Alternative Septic System there are several providers, approved by District Health Department #10, who can add this function to existing systems. This process is referred to as ‘remediation’ of the existing conventional septic system which is preferrable to complete system replacement. If this is the case, the cost is also more reasonable generally falling under $3,500 for installation with annual bacteria additions of less than $200 per year.
While Silver Lake United Voice knows that this expense is not inconsequential, it is however an investment to the long-term health of Silver Lake and everyone’s property values.
There are also common-sense things we can all do to improve the performance of any septic system, these include not using flushable wipes, they are not biodegradable; and stop using bleach and antibacterial soaps, they kill the bacteria that is naturally present in the septic system (or added within an ATU) that break down the harmful compounds in the effluence.