Wastewater Education logoWasteWater Education (Onsite Wastewater of Northwest Michigan)
2008: "Water To Waste." education publication.

Return to Education Resources Page

2008 logoOnsite Wastewater of Northwest Michigan
2008: "Water To Waste." education publication - Return To Main Index

Water To Waste Section Twelve: Understanding northwest Michigan geography and geology and how this relates to wastewater.

EPA WaterSense Logo

Bullhead Lake, Long Lake Township, MIGetting The Dirt On Northern Michigan

You don’t have to dig down very far in northwest Michigan to realize why there are so many choices, and restrictions, of types of wastewater systems.
The ‘dirt’ in our region tells a very ancient story indeed.
We know that Michigan was totally covered during the last great Ice Age. Glaciers covered this part of the world until about 11,000 years ago.
One large body of water, Lake Agassiz, formed as the result of glaciers advancing and retreating, pooling and damming meltwater at the rim of the ice sheets.
The Great Lakes formed when water finally settled to the familiar shapes we know today.

This is a simple explanation: underlying geology was created by ice deposited rocks and gravels, hard clays and sediments laid down by stagnant waters and wind blown sand dunes from ancient shores.

This makes for fascinating reading if you are a soils scientist. But it also often results in a case by case basis of where a wastewater system can or can‘t be sited. It can quite literally mean you must have a holding tank but your neighbor can have a mound - this isn’t because he has anything special -
other than a patch of suitable soils for treatment.

Code Blue, Green, Black and Gray!

Sanitary Codes and onsite system regulation in northwest Michigan is changing, adapting and evolving all the time as new technology, which has stood the test of time and real life use, gains acceptance.

One of the issues all Health Departments are constantly challenged by is lack of funding and therefore lack of staff. Keeping pace with the demands placed upon them to track, permit, inspect or monitor wastewater systems within their jurisdictions is just one of the many roles environmental health officials are charged with.

With a growing awareness and need for water conservation, water quality, energy efficiency and water recycling, health department staff are for ever attempting to keep one step ahead of the learning curve.

Of paramount importance is to keep humans out of contact with human fecal matter, or blackwater. And in this regard  all health departments err firmly on the side of caution.

As soils can vary on any given individual site, also how fast wastewater can travel through those soils, and that different  treatment types perform better on some sites than others - gives rise to continual research and testing.

Proactive and innovative health departments work to permit systems on a ‘performance’ basis, designing a system to perform on that location rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

(Left) is a typical northern Michigan soils layer exposed during digging for new basement walls.
Although the topsoil is dry, the darker layer is clearly distinguished from the sand and folds of hard clay. For those living on hard clay, wastewater can’t be easily absorbed. The soils don’t ‘perc’ i.e absorb or flow.
Sandy soils allow wastewater to pass straight through often without having time for adequate treatment.
Therefore the attractiveness of waterfront property has a ‘Catch 22’.
The soils are often folds, layers or sheered faces of clays and sand, courtesy of the Ice Age.
Designing and installing wastewater systems for northern Michigan can
be both science, art, luck and old fashioned common sense.

Soils are surprisingly fragile structures, a complex mix of fine particles, air spaces, gravels and sand pockets.
It is easy , by careless, thoughtless actions during construction or installation, to completely destroy soil structure and integrity and, therefore, its ability to perform treatment.
Known as ‘smearing’, soil particles break down and lose that crumbly texture, becoming a muddy, compacted mess.
It can take many, many years to recover.
The answer?
Fence or tape off the septic system site during construction.
Avoid any activity which compacts the area in the future, such as parking on or piling snow on it during winter.

When permitting a septic system, two things are of paramount importance: distance to the water table and having enough separation distance between the septic and your drinking water well.
Why does that matter?
Because the majority of private and municipal drinking wells draw from groundwater. Water is 'the great diluter’! Just how well do you want to know your neighbors?

If suitable soils are not available, or the water table is high on your property, then the option may exist to create a system above ground, through a mound, a recirculating media system or an advanced technology model. However, the more technology and equipment components used, the greater the need for the homeowner to know how to operate it properly, and the greater the need for a trained service person to provide regular
Proper landscaping is also essential to good performance of any system to minimize root infiltration. Remember the goal is to keep good air circulation.
Could, and should, you use graywater for landscape and other non potable water reuse?
The issue is hotly debated and largely depends on where you live and how receptive the local regulatory climate is. In the parched south, graywater systems are essential. The debate is ‘is it safe’? How many pathogens survive the cold water laundry cycle? How many are killed off by UV in sunlight or by natural soil bacteria? The answer will come, but you must decide how receptive you are to mandatory monitoring to avoid e-Coli. .....

Water To Waste Section Two: Water / Energy Efficiency information and EPA WaterSense Program

Water To Waste Section Three: The inter-relationship between water use, wastewater, the water cycle and wastewater systems.

Water To Waste Section Four: Common sense information about how your wastewater system works

Water To Waste Section Five: Installation, siting, operation and maintenance.

Water To Waste Section Six And Seven: The many amazing things that end up in the waste stream and why we should be careful and concerned.

Water To Waste Section Eight and Nine: The state of our region - an attempt to survey wastewater systems.

Water To Waste Section Ten: The Case For Community Management

Water To Waste Section Eleven: Small community options, choices and solutions

Water To Waste Section Thirteen: Information about different types of wastewater systems and case studies.

Water To Waste Section Fourteen: A terrible waste to waste - when there's money to be made and saved by innovation.

Water To Waste Section Fifteen: A word about who we are and our goals for the future - how you can help.

Water To Waste Section Sixteen: Gratitude to our sponsors and links to more information.

Return To Main Index
Photo Credits: ©Photos.com/JupiterImages
P.O.Box 792, Traverse City, MI 49685-0792
TEL: (231) 233-1806
For more information contact Executive Director

© 2003/4/5/6/7/8/9/10 Wastewater Education 501(c)3