April 23, 2009

Attention Boaters!

Boaters, Watch Your Waste Line

“There is NOTHING—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats,” is an often quoted line from The Wind in the Willows. However, some Chesapeake boaters are taking that quite literally when it comes to their holding tanks. Responsible boaters occasionally have that temptation to dump holding tanks overboard with the flip of a switch rather than visiting a pump-out station at the end of a long day. Apparently some think a “Pump Out” sign means the fuel pumps are out of order!

Some boaters have told me that they can discharge overboard because their boat has a macerator. I calmly respond that a macerator doesn’t treat their sewage; it only chops it up. Then there was one sailor who told me that he had researched it and found that “the Chesapeake is NOT a NO-discharge area.” “Yikes,” I replied, “Did you translate that sentence with two negatives into one positive?”

Boaters in “no-discharge areas” are prohibited from dumping both untreated and treated sewage. Specific small, poorly-flushed (no pun intended) areas, such as Herring Bay and the Lynnhaven watershed, need that special environmental protection.

The good news from Dave Lazarus, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality watershed expert, is that Broad Creek, Fishing Bay, and Jackson Creek may soon be added by the EPA to that list of no-discharge zones.

Responsible boaters know that it is illegal to discharge raw sewage from any vessel ANYWHERE in the Chesapeake Bay or its tributaries, regardless of proximity to a coastline. Many recreational boats have Type III type marine sanitation systems (isn’t that an oxymoron?) which merely hold sewage until it can be safely pumped out.

Boaters who get an annual Coast Guard Auxiliary or Power Squadron vessel safety check know that Type III systems must have a SECURED closed Y-valve to prevent overboard discharge while in the Bay or its tributaries. The Coast Guard and Marine Police have better things to do than enforce this regulation. Let’s police that ourselves.

U.S. Coast Guard Chief of Investigations, Jerry Crooks, told me “We’ve never received a complaint about illegal sewage overboard, but we know it happens.” Who would discharge sewage when another boat, or Coast Guard or Marine Police boat is nearby?

Some boaters argue that the contents of their single boat’s holding tank are “peanuts” compared to the big sources of pollution; insignificant in the big picture. A single overboard discharge from a boat holding tank into a low dilution environment, such as a marina, can be detected for at least one square mile from the discharge point for quite some time. Is that sufficient motivation? If not, think about the thousands of boats out there with you.

True, sewage system overflows from our large municipalities after super heavy rainfall contribute more than their share of “nutrient over-enrichment” into our waterways, as does agricultural runoff. However, individual boaters do not need to add their additional two cents worth.

Consider this amazing discovery—the San Francisco Estuary Project found that “the untreated discharge from one weekend boater puts the same amount of bacterial pollution into the water as does the treated sewage of 10,000 people.” Yuck! To be graphic—remember that boat holding tank contents are VERY concentrated, compared to municipal sewage which is diluted by millions of gallons of water and rainwater. Also, it often contains treatment chemicals such as chlorine and formaldehyde to reduce odors or as disinfectants. Most commercial products used in heads should be biodegradable. But using too much or the wrong type of a product can poison marine life. Can your conscience handle oxygen depletion and algae blooms, let alone coliform bacteria in our waterways and contaminated shellfish?

Both Virginia and Maryland require marinas with more than 50 slips to have a pump-out, and both states have grant programs, supported by the federal Clean Vessel Act, which fund at least 75 percent of the cost of a pump-out installation. By regulation, any marina that uses a grant can charge boaters no more than $5 for pump-out service of a typical holding tank. Recent Maryland legislation requires that, as of July 1, 2010, Maryland marinas with more than ten slips and with boats over 22 feet in length must have a pump-out facility.

Friends of the Rappahannock’s "Pump for the Rivah" program, modeled after a cleanup initiative in Solomons, Maryland., is doing an excellent job in their educational program to stress pump-out use on the Rappahannock and septic tank maintenance. In Virginia, the Department of Health’s Hampton Roads Sanitation District has spread the word to boaters. But more education is needed.

Watermen are paying the price of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in our rivers and bay. Merely reducing the 2008 crab harvest will not solve the problem. Sediment, fertilizers, loss of underwater grasses, farm runoff, and sewage treatment plants’ discharge are a larger combined assault than overfishing.

So let’s stop the blame game where watermen, farmers, sewage plant operators, and the poultry industry point fingers. We 17 million who reside along Chesapeake shorelines need to take responsibility for the state of the bay and the super-sized nitrogen diet we’ve fed it. Any amount of nitrogen and phosphates from your boat’s holding tank is one ounce too many for our threatened bay. Keep your “stuff” in your boat’s holding tank until you get to a pump-out. Complain loudly if you find one that’s not working or working poorly. Encourage your marina owner to maintain their pump-out facility.

As more of us head out on our local waters as the weather warms, keep your eyes open. Report suspected water pollution (oil spills, fish kills, hazardous materials) or suspected violation of environmental laws as soon as possible.

In VA: Department of Environmental Quality’s Pollution Response Program (PREP):

During normal work hours call the DEQ Regional Office that covers the area where the incident occurred.
· Northern Regional Office: Woodbridge, VA; 703-583-3800
· Piedmont Regional Office: Glen Allen , VA; 804-527-5020
· Tidewater Office: Virginia Beach, VA; 757-518-2000

Nights, holidays, and weekends call the Department of Emergency Management's 24 hour reporting number:

In Virginia only: 800 468-8892

Out-of-state calls: 804 674-2400
In MD: Report any environmental emergency that poses an immediate threat to the public health or the well-being of the environment such as oil and chemical spills or accidents causing releases of pollutants by calling toll free 866-633-4686.

Fish Kills and Algae Blooms: Days 800-285-8195; Nights/Weekends 888-584-3110
Hazardous Material & Oil Spills: Days, Nights/Weekends 866-MDE GO TO

FYI: Rainbow colored films can result from harmless iron-oxidizing bacteria on the water's surface, OR from oil discharges to the stream, possibly from run off from roads or parking lots. One way to differentiate iron-oxidizing bacteria from oil releases is to trail a small stick or leaf through the film. If the film breaks up into small islands or clusters, it is most likely bacteria. If the film swirls together, it is most likely a petroleum discharge. If you believe it is a petroleum discharge, please report the discharge according to the instructions above.


Report broken pump-out stations in Virginia to the Virginia Department of Health at 1–800–ASK–FISH .

In Maryland, report them to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources at 410-260-8770.