Issue: March 2012
BYPOINTS: And Now, the Poop

With your kind permission, I'd like to take a minute here to talk about poop. And is that so wrong? I mean, really, let's be grown-ups about this. After all, you poop, I poop, all God's children got to poop. That said (and oh so eloquently, don't you think?) I call your attention to contributing editor Diana Prentice's compelling essay on the subject in this issue [see "Pump & Circumstance," page 32].

Diana opens on the subject of pump-outs. Pump-out boats, to be exact. The pump-out boat, to be even exacter, that serves the West and Rhode Rivers below Annapolis. Compared to seeking out a self-service pump-out station onshore and taking matters into one's own hands, so to speak, a pump-out boat is about as convenient as it gets, she says. As convenient as a pump-out (Type III) system gets, anyway. The story naturally progresses to the subject of no-discharge zones and Type I and II marine toilets, the kind that don't require pump-outs, but rather virtually sterilize the waste and discharge it overboard. A touchy subject, that one, as you probably very well know. It became one hell of a political football two years ago when Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler proposed a bill that would have made the entire Maryland portion of the Bay a no-discharge zone (NDZ). That is, it would have made treat-and-release marine toilets flatly illegal in Maryland.

Many boaters were up in arms about this, of course, and perhaps it was their collective voice that ultimately caused the bill to peter out in committee in the 2010 session. It never reached the floor of either house for a vote, and the idea has lain dormant since. At the heart of the debate is whether or not onboard treatment systems are as effective as modern-day sewage treatment plants in removing nutrients from waste. Strictly speaking, they do not, but a 2007 EPA-sanctioned test of a popular Type I device seemed to show that it removed a significant percentage of the "influent" nutrients.

And even if those devices had little or no effect on nutrients, many boaters argue, their contribution to the Bay's nutrient overload would still be, to quote one particular fire-breather, "absurdly insignificant." Looking strictly at numbers, this is a very compelling argument. Even if you wildly overestimate the potential nutrient contribution from Type I and II devices—double or triple it, even—it's still a tiny fraction of the natural contributions of nitrogen and phosphorus (fish and duck poop comes to mind), to say nothing of the incalculable manmade influx from all the farms and feedlots and over-fertilized lawns of the vast Bay watershed.

 It's a compelling argument indeed. But it's not bulletproof. That is, in my mind, it's not a reason to allow Type I discharges anywhere in the Bay. As Diana points out, reasonable people agree that no-discharge zones make sense in limited circumstances—namely, in places where there are great concentrations of boats or limited water flow, or both. There are a few limited no-discharge zones around the Bay—Herring Bay and the waters around Deltaville, Va., for instance—and of course many marinas and harbors prohibit the use of Type I/II devices. It's a very reasonable middle ground, Diana says at the end of her piece. And, she adds, that's a nice place to be.


Tim Sayles, Editor