Waste-Treatment Crackdown Made County a Safer Place

Peninsula has 16,000 private wastewater treatment systems

John Teichtler undoubtedly has helped Door County clean up its act.

Now in his 53rd year serving the County of Door, and its current Sanitarian, he was tasked in 1971 with taking water samples at public places to test for contaminants. The county had adopted a permit program in 1967 for septic systems and household wastewater practices, but there still were existing systems with too shallow of soils and even a couple of homeowners who piped waste into rock crevices, Teichtler said.

In 1971, a Milwaukee Journal reporter took water samples at restaurants and other popular locations, put sample bottles in his camera bag, had the samples tested, and exposed the county for well contamination in a story called “Poison in Paradise.”

“That triggered a lot of interest in the Door County groundwater,” Teichtler said. 

He said tainted well water – due to inadequate or irresponsible wastewater treatment coupled with porous bedrock – had triggered numerous Montezuma’s Revenge episodes (traveler’s diarrhea) for tourists and residents for many decades before that.

Some Door County villages and towns – Sister Bay, Ephraim, Fish Creek, Baileys Harbor, Sevastopol (Valmy-Institute), Forestville and Egg Harbor – built wastewater-treatment plants between 1972 and the 1980s, and the state toughened standards for household septic systems and holding tanks to protect groundwater.

Exposed stone at George K. Pinney County Park, site of the old Leathem and Smith quarry, shows karst geology and a dearth of soil covering the bedrock.

Safe Systems, Safer water

Teichtler’s department got out of the water-testing and well-testing business – those programs are now overseen by the county’s Public Health department and the Soil and Water Conservation Department – but the sanitarian’s office continues to protect groundwater. 

Door County has 16,000 septic systems and holding tanks, considered private onsite wastewater treatment systems (POWTS). Teichtler’s department holds builders and property owners responsible for installing and maintaining those systems properly.

That means Teichtler gets out of the office quite a bit – whether that means checking on the Southern Door County School’s three-cell, football-field-length mound system, or assuring a developer installs the proper system to keep well water safe below and near a home site. 

On a recent morning, Teichtler met in a Baileys Harbor woodland with soil tester Dan VanderLeest, and home builder and property owner, Charles Kiker. An equipment operator dug four holes until reaching bedrock. 

Kiker was relieved that they found between 24 and 30 inches of soil above the bedrock, enough to allow him to build a mound system for his eventual retirement home. 

“You can’t argue with these guys,” said Kiker. “Sanitation is the No. 1 priority. House placement revolves around where the mound system goes.”

If he didn’t have the 2 feet of soil anywhere on the homesite, Kiker would have needed a holding tank. A lack of soil above the bedrock or a high water table necessitates a holding tank, which needs to be pumped anywhere from once a week to once a month depending on usage. 

Owners with the tanks have to pay pumping charges to haulers, disposal charges for sewer plants and, when fuel prices rise, a diesel surcharge.

Soil tester Dan VanderLeest (left) measures 24 inches of soil before Door County Sanitarian John Teichtler confirms that there’s enough above the bedrock to allow a mound system to keep wastewater out of the groundwater. Photo by Craig Sterrett.

“It can get costly to pump and haul,” Teichtler said.

One cliff-edge resort, he said, has a 250,000-gallon tank that keeps semi drivers busy.

Ideally, homeowners want conventional in-ground systems that are completely underground. But those need at least 48 inches of soil depth and due to this general lack of topsoil, the majority of Door County systems are mound systems.

Catching and Fixing Failing Systems

Since development of its POWTS maintenance program in 1978, the county sends property owners letters reminding them to have a pumper inspect the system every three years and take remedial action as needed, such as flushing out the effluent filter or clogged pipes that distribute wastewater to the absorption system. The owner also may need to replace a saturated or non-functioning soil-absorption system or a faulty dose-chamber pump or switch. 

The letters go out in April and the pumpers need to return the report electronically by the end of October.

The three-year requirement reminders do not go out to holding tank owners.

Teichtler also prefers septic systems with a dosing chamber and pump that gradually feed wastewater into the mound or absorption system rather than allowing everything through as it leaves the house. 

No matter what kind of system is in place, all can fail, either from age or abuse. From 2002 to 2016, Teichtler said they did a sanitary survey and identified 30% of the systems across the county were failing. His department issued orders for all of those to be replaced.

“The percentage now that are failing, I’d say is less than 5%,” he said 

Systems are designed for about a 25-year life expectancy.

“But if they’re not maintained properly, meaning the septic tank isn’t pumped when it becomes one-third filled with solids or you abuse the system, meaning discharging more wastewater into the system than it was designed for or putting chemicals in there that kill the (good) bacteria, it’s going to fail more quickly,” he said.

Those include no flushing of cigarette butts or wet wipes that claim to be flushable. 

“One of the worst things to use is a garbage grinder, which most people have,” he said. 

In addition to wasting water, garbage disposals send organic material, such as potato peels, into the system, where it can clog holes in pipes that lead to the absorption system in the soil. Effluent filters have been required since July 2000. Those that don’t have them could be plugging up their sanitary systems whenever they use their grinder – with organic matter that could be better used for composting.

Teichtler makes himself available to help homeowners and has plenty of handouts providing advice for maintaining the systems, with a wealth of information also at

For the Health of Your Septic System

Don’t let water run unnecessarily, fix any leaks, take shorter showers, only run full loads of dishes or clothes – and it’s better to run one load a day for a week than five in one day.

–Source: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources