Boat Waste Disposal: What is the Problem and What is the Solution?
By Steve Morrell
As the Southern waterways become more populated—and more people want to live on those waterways—anchoring rights, marinas, and mooring fields are becoming a major issue for boaters. Communities throughout the South, particularly in Florida, are rising up against cruisers who want to anchor in their waters. We hear complaints about derelict boats, noise, views and other concerns—but one of the main ones is always about human waste disposal. Local communities, especially waterfront landowners, are always claiming that human feces are being regularly disposed of in the waters right outside their back doors.
There is some truth to this, but how much do we really know? How valid are these complaints and how much pollution is really going on?
I have met all types of boaters and have personally been living and sailing aboard boats off and on since 1979. I have met some who would never dump their waste overboard unless they were out beyond the three-mile limit, and in shore, they would only dispose of it using a pump-out. But I am convinced they are the minority. Surprised?
Several years ago, after boater complaints of limited pump-out facilities, California did a study in two major counties. Out of 77 marinas, they found 56 had no pump-out facilities. That’s 73 percent without them. There were 15,500 boats at these marinas. This was a shock to the department regulating waste disposal—in the state that prides itself on environmentalism. What about the rest of the country? What about the South?
Do you have pump-out facilities at your marina? Do you use them without exception? Do you ever pump out right in your marina? If you don’t, do you go three miles out?
Who Will Admit Pumping Overboard?
In all the discussions about anchorages, mooring fields, and liveaboards, this is the most contentious issue, yet we don’t hear many boaters rising to their defense. They will talk loudly about anchoring rights—and quietly insist they don’t pump overboard. Why? Because so many are pumping waste overboard. But no one wants to admit it. Human feces dumped overboard? Who wants to admit doing that? I will admit it. I have done it. I had to really go—and my holding tank was full. I was in a marina, had Montezuma’s revenge (in a foreign port), and wasn’t about to not go. Believe me, when the time comes, not much else matters. Many out there will understand and shake their heads knowing they have done the same thing. At least that waste was macerated. Helped a little, anyway. Who else will admit it?
Complaints that liveaboards anchoring out are dumping are rampant. What about your own docks? I guarantee there isn’t a marina in Florida, whether a public marina, private marina, or yacht club marina, where there aren’t boaters dumping overboard. I challenge anyone to prove it to me. Do not blame only the liveaboards if you see human feces floating around. Face the truth.
To overcome and succeed in holding onto our anchoring rights, we must face this issue head on and resolve it.
How much of this debate between landlubbers and boaters is really out in the open and how many talk about it and really know what they are talking about? Waterfront property owners complain of pollution, yet do they know that the main source of pollution in our waters is nonpoint source pollution (NPS)? NPS is pollution from run-off from land into the waters from rain, flooding, etc. It comes from all the pesticides, fertilizers, chemicals, oil, grease, bacteria from livestock waste (including feces) and all the other manmade products that don’t blend in nicely with the natural environment. Do landowners on waterfront property know how much their run-off contributes to the pollution of the waters they live on? What about one day at their local tourist beach when thousands of swimmers urinate in one afternoon (and some defecate, believe it or not)? How about during an incoming tide near an inlet?
Let’s compare that to one boat dumping into an anchorage. Who is polluting more? How important is it to not dump human waste overboard? Suppose you are dumping overboard in an inlet on an outgoing tide with a three-knot current taking the waters offshore within hours? How much human waste gets dumped into the ocean three miles out from one cruise ship? Suppose it is offshore three miles on an incoming tide? A cruise ship carrying 3000 people will dump 30,000 gallons of sewage into the ocean in one day (This does not include the over 250,000 gallons of gray water they dump in the same time period). This is more than all the boaters in Florida dump in one year if not many years. Ships can currently dump right outside the three-mile limit.
None of this justifies dumping raw sewage from a boat into someone’s local waters. What it does is bring up how little people know about the subject, how much accusation is thrown around without any knowledge of the extent of the problem, who is really contributing to it and how to resolve it.
What About No-Discharge Zones?
No-discharge zones are established or being established all over Southern waters. These zones don’t even allow the use of Type I and Type II MSDs—systems that treat waste and discharge it with very low levels of bacteria. I talk to people that think they can dump in these no-discharge zones if they have a Type I or Type II MSD. They are wrong. You can’t, but is it right? Should we be able to? Where are the studies? Where is the science? Let’s get some perspective here.
What are we going to do about this problem? How are we going to solve it? Pump-outs at every slip? That exists. Does maceration help? Do we need more pump-out locations? (I guarantee that.) What other questions go unasked or unanswered?
If we don’t resolve this problem, there will be more shouting and pointing fingers, more unjustified liveaboard hatred. But we must be honest about it and we must know what we are talking about.
I remember many times anchoring in Avalon Harbor on Catalina Island off the southern coast of California. Avalon Harbor is a small bay with a small opening. The number of boats moored there during a summer day on the harbor’s permanent, regulated moorings made the harbor look like a Wal-Mart parking lot on a Saturday morning. When you entered the harbor and took a mooring, a boat came over, inspected your waste system and dumped green dye in your toilet. If you dumped into the bay, they spotted you from a lookout on the hillside above the harbor and you were kicked out and not allowed in for one year. Every morning, as was my habit, I would wake up and swim in these crystal-clear, clean waters.
Let’s not get to that point, putting dye in the toilets. But let’s figure out how to handle this boat waste with knowledge and sense. Let’s have some ideas.