By Mike Kelly, The Conservation Fund and Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network
Saginaw Bay on the western middle of Lake Huron is an amazing resource—it is beautiful, provides a ton of recreational opportunities, and is vital to the local economy. However, high bacterial counts are putting a damper on recreation. Since 2005, one of the tributaries, the Kawkawlin River had high coliform (bacteria) levels resulting in body contact warnings for nearly 200 days!
One of the biggest questions has been: What is the real source of bacterial contamination? Over the years, many communities along tributaries that flow into the Bay have spent a lot of money to upgrade water treatment facilities in order to meet discharge standards. Yet one major source of contamination was beyond the control of water treatment efforts.
Failing septic systems, particularly on waterfront properties were considered as a potential source of bacteria. An epidemic across the Great Lakes, often homeowners aren’t even aware there’s a problem because everything seems fine in their houses. The issue lies underground and shows up in area surface water where they don’t see it.
The truth is that homeowners with failing septic systems are in a tough situation. They clearly love the Saginaw Bay area. Why else would they choose to live there? Yet, the necessary improvements can cost upwards of $10,000, straining most people’s budgets impossibly.
So the problem was then redefined to be how can we help people make these costly but necessary septic system improvements? The solution was the Septage Source Elimination Program and Revolving Loan Fund that supplies low-interest loans to homeowners with at-risk and failing septic systems.
Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network (WIN) and The Conservation Fund, with funding provided by Freshwater Future through the Healing Our Waters grants program, provided resources to develop an invaluable tool to identify what septic systems were failing and had a direct hydrologic connection to surface water. Using infrared thermography, the Bay County Health Department could quickly and visually identify warm septage seeping from homes into surface water. This innovative technology can be used to allow homeowners to “see” and better understand the problems caused by their systems. If a homeowners septic system is found to be negatively affecting surface water they can qualify for a low-interest loan for repairs.
With this important research in place, WIN made the first investment of $50,000 into the county’s new loan fund. Additional funding followed from the Bay Area Community Foundation and others, resulting in a $100,000 (and growing!) fund that will be used to replace systems or help homeowners finance the connection to the municipal sewer systems where available.
Together, these investments have taken critical steps toward helping improve the water quality of the Bay, while also providing an important new tool to help determine the source of the problems.
For more information visit, www.saginawbaywin. org.