A year-round cruiser weighs in on one of boating's hot-button issues: marine sanitation devices, pump-out facilities and the lingering spectre of a Bay-wide no-discharge zone. 

by Diana Prentice
photographs by Ann Levelle

Michael DeRogatis gently nudges the pump-out boat Honey Dipper--canary yellow and trimmed with white fenders--toward Strider. Deftly rafting alongside, he steps away from his console and hands my husband Randy the business end of a fat hose. It's a black gizmo with a clear plastic sight-glass allowing us to view whatever contents will be regurgitated from . . . um, the bowels of our sailboat.

The drill is familiar. Randy takes the nozzle and seals it snugly in the port side's holding tank deck fitting. DeRogatis flips  a switch, activating a low mechanical hum. Randy turns the large yellow valve handle on the nozzle and a powerful rhythmic sucking begins. The strength of Honey Dipper's pump seems better than most (about 10 gallons per minute, DeRogatis says) and we're done in no time.

Ah, the marine sanitation device, or MSD. It's the dirty little secret of the boating lifestyle. Cockpit cocktail chatter touches subjects like onboard storage capabilities for fresh water, fuel, energy and so on. But sewage? Hardly. Mom taught us well; the processes and substances related to bodily functions, aside from eating, are not subjects for polite company.

Our sailboat, built in Taiwan in 1987, was built with an unseen holding tank of about 20 gallons. It's what the Coast Guard categorizes as a Type III MSD. We've never actually seen the holding tank and in fact don't even know exactly where it is. We trust in its existence because it works and because the well-qualified surveyor who has inspected the boat twice for us, top to bottom, assures us that it's down there. Somewhere. And it's not very big. That much we knew.

With a relatively low-capacity holding tank, of course, less means more--more frequent pump-outs, that is. In the warm months, that's not particularly inconvenient, since we're usually in the Bay, and we spend much of that time in Spa Creek in Annapolis or a bit farther south on the West River--both places where pump-out boats prowl the waters. Last season, while based in the West River, it was relatively easy to plan pump-outs to coincide with the good ship Honey Dipper's regular rounds--Thursdays through Mondays. Indeed, we didn't once have to seek out a shoreside pump-out station last year, or go to all the bother it entails: negotiating narrow marina fairways, rigging lines and fenders, and figuring out the pump-out device itself.

But when we're out cruising on the Bay (or outside the Bay altogether; we are snowbirds, after all), it's another story. At those times our pump-out needs are indeed an important factor in planning and day-to-day decision-making. Is there a pump-out facility where we're going, or nearby, or at least on the way? And if so, is it conveniently located at the end of a T-dock? Or is it down some fiendishly narrow alley, where you'd be nervous to go even in a kayak with bow thrusters? And, yes, sometimes you have to ask this: Do you really have a pump-out or does it just say so in the brochure, because you haven't updated it since the hurricane came through in 2003? We've learned to ask pointed questions before committing to a fuel purchase.

Pump-out boats are fairly common in New England, Florida and California. Indeed, there's a company in Warwick, R.I.--Marine Boatbuilders Company--that specializes in pump-out boats, offering five different models, from 19 to 31 feet of its "Pump Kleen" boats. But they're considerably less common on the Bay. In addition to the West-Rhode River Association's Honey Dipper, in operation since 2007, there are pump-out boats at Herrington Harbour South (on Herring Bay, below Annapolis), at Bay Boat Works in Northeast, Md., and in Deltaville, Va. The granddaddy of them all on the Bay is that of the Annapolis harbormaster, in operation for nearly 20 years and serving both Back Creek and Spa Creek.

As is the case with the vast majority of pump-out stations on the Bay, the fee for these pump-out boat services is $5 for up to 50 gallons and 10 cents per gallon for anything over that. This isn't a matter of coincidence or market forces; it's a condition of accepting federal grant money--which has been available through the Department of Interior since the passage of the 1992 Clean Vessel Act. In Maryland the grant program is administered by the Boating Services division of the Department of Natural Resources. In Virginia the grants are handled by the Virginia Department of Health.

There are also a couple of private pump-out boat services in the upper Bay. Captain Bo Weaver has operated his Pump Out Boat Company of Maryland in Baltimore Harbor for the past 10 years, and on the Eastern Shore David Clazey owns Safe Harbor Sanitation, serving the waters of Rock Hall, Md. Their aim is also to meet the boaters' often-difficult-to-comply-with-need to follow the law. The only difference with this non-subsidized service is the price. Boaters accustomed to paying $5 a pop might think they're being wildly over-charged (Weaver's service charges $39 for a single 50-gallon pump-out, $5 less for members of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation), but in fact they're only seeing the difference between subsidized and non-subsidized businesses.

Randy and I could free ourselves from the pump-out routine--as indeed, most full-time cruisers do--by installing a Type I or II marine sanitation device, or MSD. Like a tiny version of an onshore sewage treatment plant, these MSDs reduce fecal coliform bacteria to an acceptable level before releasing it into the water. They are somewhat less effective than state-of-the-art sewage plants, however, in removing nutrients--though it's difficult to get exact apples-to-apples numbers in that regard. Still, the Type I/II MSD is a perfectly legal alternative on the Bay--with a few localized exceptions, the so-called no-discharge zones, or NDZs. More on that later. Lots more.

But converting to such a system is not cheap. For Strider it would likely be north of $2,000, and so far we've always had more pressing things to do with that kind of money. Even if cost were no object, there are issues of space and logistics; onboard treatment systems require battery power and salt--not to mention regular maintenance.

And now we have arrived, as you may well know, at the political and/or ideological and/or environmental nub of the matter. Ask a boater about this--about holding tank systems versus treat-and-release systems, and you're likely to get one heck of an earful. If well-versed on the subject, he or she will probably tell you:

• That the general public is ill-informed and doesn't even really know what a no-discharge zone is. That is, many think it's about banning the release of raw sewage in the Bay, when of course that already is flatly illegal--and has been since the 1950s--within three miles of a coastline.

• That modern treat-and-release MSDs do as good a job, if not better, than onshore sewage treatment plants in removing fecal coliform bacteria.

• That even though MSDs don't remove nutrients from boat waste as well as sewage-treatment plants do, the total nutrient load from treated boat waste represents a truly miniscule fraction of the Bay's overall nutrient problem--a fraction estimated to be three one-thousandths of one percent by the Marine Trade Association of Maryland.

• That the proposed fine of $10,000 for the release of treated waste from a boat in a no-discharge zone might be just a little extreme, given that the fine for manslaughter with a vessel can be half that.

• That when it comes to nutrient overload, the Bay's real problems are farms, fertilizers, cows, chickens, septic systems, air pollution, and raw-effluent spills from outdated sewage infrastructure.

• That the great majority of boats on the Bay are small day-use vessels that neither require nor have heads of any kind onboard.

• That even large boats are often not part of the equation because, even though they have heads, their owners tend not to use them. When these people do leave the dock, it's likely only for a lunchtime jaunt to a nearby eatery, with restroom facilities. They return to their slips within a few hours, or to another marina, where they prefer the comforts of shoreside comfort stations.

The very term "no-discharge zone," or NDZ, is often enough to get a heated debate going--especially since 2010, when Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler proposed a bill that would have made the entire Maryland portion of the Bay a no-discharge zone. That is to say, it would have made treat-and-release MSDs illegal everywhere in Maryland. Although both the House and Senate held hearings on the matter, the bill stalled in committee and didn't make to either house for a vote before the session ended. And, although the idea still has its advocates, the bill was not proposed again in 2011--nor have there been any indications that it will reemerge in this year's session.

Pretty much all of coastal New England is a no-discharge zone, as is Long Island Sound, the south shore of Long Island and the northern half of the New Jersey coast. But NDZs are fairly rare in the Chesapeake. The first was established in 2002 in Herring Bay, just below the Rhode and West rivers. Since then two more have been added--the Lynnhaven River and its tributaries in Virginia Beach and the waters around Deltaville, Va. (Fishing Bay, Jackson Creek and Broad Creek). There's also one now on the ocean side--the coastal bays behind Ocean City, Md.

Keith Jones has the unique perspective of studying NDZ issues from several standpoints: cruising boater, waterfront home owner, and marina operator. As owner of Compass Marina on the East River in Virginia's Mobjack Bay, which is a certified member of Virginia's Clean Marina program, he installed in-slip pump-outs for his customers; as a committed clean boater, he has a Type I MSD on his Bristol 45-foot sloop, Pearl. Despite the expense of both the state-of-the-art system that Jones provides for customers and his complicated onboard arrangement (which he admits is "more gear to maintain and break, and another electrical draw") he's pleased with his decisions. Although the proposed Maryland NDZ wouldn't have affected him in Virginia, he didn't much like the idea. "This only affects a small percentage of boaters, who actually installed MSDs because they cared about the environment in the first place."

As is the case with all pump-outs, Jones's service at Compass Marine has to be shut down and winterized for the cold months, resulting in a service interruption from December through early spring. This presents another problem for the year-round boater, and especially in a designated NDZ: pump-outs are all but non-existent in the off-season--which can start as early as October and extend into May. An exception to this is the aforementioned Bo Weaver, owner of the Pump Out Boat Company in Baltimore. He schedules his services all year, winterizing and de-winterizing on a biweekly basis in cold months to accommodate his customers.

Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman, whose jurisdiction of course includes Solomons Island, one of Maryland's largest concentrations of recreational boats, thinks the focus on boat pollution is out of whack with the scale of the problem. "I think [boaters] are small-scale pollution sources," he says, adding that his experience leads him to believe that there are very few "willful or negligent" scofflaws in the boating community. He says the public, and the health of the Bay, would be better served if regulators paid closer attention to industrial polluters. "Some of these dischargers profit while leaching heavy metals and dangerous toxins into the water," he says, "and continue unabated from a very permissive regulatory establishment."

Susan Shingledecker, director of environmental programs for BoatUS, says we should be looking at aging sewer infrastructure and septic systems (which are estimated to account for as much as 8 percent of nutrients leaching into the Bay from Maryland's shores), not the treated effluent from boats. "The Maryland Department of the Environment's ‘Reported Sewer Overflow' database," she says, "shows that over three billion gallons of untreated sewage and wastewater were released into Maryland waters in 2010."

Others say of course that agricultural runoff is the real elephant in the room, nutrient-wise, pointing to the many millions of acres of farmland in the watershed--on the Eastern Shore, on the Western Shore, up the Rappahannock, up the Choptank and Wicomico and Nanticoke, up the Potomac, up the Chester and all the way up the mighty Susquehanna into New York. And don't get them started on the millions of acres of heavily fertilized grass in the same watershed.

One of the most outspoken people I know of on the subject of no-discharge zones is Tom Neale, a full-time liveaboard cruiser and author who writes regular columns for Boat U.S. and Soundings, where he also serves as technical editor.

"Many politicians feel that they can [win elections] by proposing NDZs." Neale wrote in a long and scorchingly anti-NDZ article in Soundings in 2010, not long after the Maryland bill fizzled out. "They know that the misinformed public doesn't realize that an NDZ diminishes rather than increases tools to deal with the issue. Thus, they can claim from the stump, ‘I did something about it,' while avoiding going after massive polluters." But when a sewer line fails somewhere and dumps millions of gallons of untreated waste into the waters, he writes, they look the other way." At the core of his argument, however, is the notion that no-discharge zones don't offer a solution, they take one away. "NDZs reduce the ways of handling sewage on boats from two--pumpouts and onboard treatment MSDs--to one," he says.

So, having looked at this mostly through a cruising boater's eyes, and having revealed at least my knee-jerk sympathies along the way, I suppose I should offer a little balance.

Randy and I, now wintering on Georgia's Jeckyll Island, have actually mellowed a bit on the subject. Initially more than a little irritated by the sledgehammer that was Attorney General Gansler's proposed statewide NDZ, we've come to think that perhaps a tiny ball-peen hammer might be appropriate. That is, perhaps it is reasonable to ban discharge, even well-treated discharge, in some places--crowded harbors and anchorages and marinas and places with limited waterflow.

That indeed seems to be the reasonable middle ground, where cooler heads find something to agree on. John Page Williams, a fellow Chesapeake Bay Magazine contributor as well as a naturalist and longtime educator with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis, points out that while nitrogen and phosphorous contributions from Type I/II MSDs may indeed represent a tiny fraction of the Bay's nutrient problem, they might be a significant part of "localized" nutrient overloads--that is, in areas where boats congregate in great numbers. And indeed, on that very point he and Tom Neale are in fact, very much in agreement. Nothing Neale says about no-discharge zones, he points out, necessarily pertains to "small, enclosed or otherwise limited-flow, high-density boating areas." Indeed, in those limited situations, the pump-out-only solution makes sense.

And that, I'm happy to say, is where I've come to dwell too. In the reasonable middle ground, where cool heads prevail and people agree. It's a nice place to be.

[3.12 issue]