Skip to main content

Poop Patrol Mounts Assault on Common Sense (Blog)

  • Author:
  • Updated:

A couple of boating friends volunteered last year to crew on a large commercial fishing boat for an extended trip out of Bellingham, Washington. Under way, they were aghast to learn that a bucket served as a toilet.

Once the discomfort and indignity of using that bucket was over they had to take the next step and carefully dump its contents into the water. Kersplash. Ugh.


That was a bad act, and clearly against the law if they were within three miles of shore, but it also was an anachronism. Nearly every boat using the marine waters of Western Washington–95 percent by a state estimate–today is fitted either with a holding tank for sewage that will be pumped ashore for treatment in a municipal system or carries a small treatment plant on board that kills dangerous bacteria before the waste is dumped into the sea.

Before getting to the point of this blog, I acknowledge a special interest in this topic. First, my GB42 has a holding tank (40 gallons). I installed it myself because the original might have held 10 gallons. Second, I was a reporter for the Seattle Times a long, long time. And for much of that time I covered the poop beat.

It wasn’t called that in the newsroom, but while you might not know what a metro beat is you surely recognize the purpose of a poop beat.

I reported on the saving of Lake Washington at Seattle through the elimination of suburban treatment plants rimming the lake. I wrote about the innovative regional district that built modern sewage-treatment plants and worked to contain spills, treatment plant flooding and overflows. I also wrote about the birth of the Department of Ecology (much more about it later) and covered its activities for years.

I was neutral and objective in my writing about state, regional and local issues–professional ethics and my editors demanded that–but inwardly I cheered the clean-up efforts.

Let’s go back to the beginning, in the 1970s, when Congress adopted amendments to the Clean Water Act and banned the discharge of raw sewage into the nation’s waterways. Untreated waste could be pumped overboard only when a vessel was more than three miles offshore under that law, which remains in effect today.

To attain that no-discharge goal in sensitive inland waters, Congress first ruled that all boats built after 1977 with a marine toilet on board also had to be equipped with a marine sanitation device–in other words, a holding tank for waste water or a treatment system. My boat, built in 1978, had that insignificant shoe-box-sized tank because of that act. It represented a nod of acquiescence to the law by Grand Banks.

A little later lawmakers got tougher and amended the act to require that ALL pleasure boats–no matter when they were built–be fitted with a marine sanitation device if they carried a marine toilet on board.

That law has been on the books nearly four decades.

And yet, the Washington state Department of Ecology (DOE) now wants to declare nearly all of the marine waters in Western Washington a no discharge zone (NDZ). The department doesn’t seem to recognize the facts–a state-sponsored NDZ is not needed. We’ve already got one, courtesy of Congress.

If approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, the heaviest burden would fall on the small number of boaters (7,000 or fewer by some state estimates) who use treatment onboard systems. Those boats would not be allowed to pump treated waste water overboard, which means they would be forced to install a holding tank and probably replace the treatment unit with a simpler standard boat toilet. At a cost of a couple boat units.

(The federal government sets performance standards for marine treatment systems; the state also has its standards, which are stricter.)

Ecology acknowledges that many boaters regularly use pump-out stations to empty holding tanks. Washington’s state parks agency, which provides pump stations at marine parks and manages grants to public and private entities for installation of boat pump-out systems, reports that 5.7 million gallons of sewage were pumped from boats to treatment systems on shore in 2013.

We all know, too, that not every boater goes to shore stations every time–often because they are poorly located or overcrowded in peak hours, don’t always work and because some areas have only a very few places to unload. Some boaters don’t care.

The department logically is concerned about protecting beaches and bays rich in shell fish and the waters where kids play. Boaters I know are sensitive to these goals. While some may pump a holding tank in the middle of Rosario Strait when a three-knot current is ripping out to sea, they would die before dumping in Reid Harbor, Fisherman Bay, at Sucia Island or other special places.

One of the state’s key goals–the protection of shell fish beds–really grabs me. There’s a major commercial shell fish operation on Samish Bay, not far from my home. State health officials monitor water flowing from the Samish River and bar harvesting when high counts of fecal bacteria are measured. That’s good.

Everyone knows that those hints of sewage in Samish Bay and other shell fish areas are not caused by boaters, although that’s what Ecology wants us to believe. Rain that washes animal waste (from cows, horses, etc) into the Samish River and the failure of septic systems in the surrounding rural area are the principal sources of bad bacteria in the bay. The number of harvesting closures is declining in Samish Bay and credit for that goes to the state, to Skagit County, the farmers who are reducing the amount of animal waste washing into streams that flow to the bay and homeowners who test and repair or replace septic systems.

Although some boaters fear heavy-handed enforcement if the NDZ is created, Ecology officials say their emphasis would be on education. Creation of a no-discharge zone, however, is not a prerequisite to development of educational programs and PR efforts promoting clean waters and the construction and use of pump-out stations.

Yeah, I know states are broke. But in many cities now it’s possible to pay for curbside parking with a smart phone. There’s no reason why that won’t work for pump-out stations. Boaters are rich, you know, and wouldn’t fuss over a couple of dollars on the credit card.

Or, more could do what the Seattle Yacht Club has done to protect water quality. The club, which opposes creation of the proposed no-discharge zone, has offered no-cost pump outs by a mobile service for members who moor their boats at the club’s main station on Portage Bay in Seattle. The service is available April 1through October 31. (Another confession: I’m a member of SYC and proud of the people who put this program together)

The Recreational Boaters Association of Washington seems to be leaning toward a compromise in which the state’s no-discharge rule would apply only in designated waters that are deemed fragile, are producers of shell fish or are important recreational areas. The association’s members are yacht clubs, but the group focus is on the needs and interests of all boaters.

That idea of protecting special places has been adopted by neighboring British Columbia. It bans outright any black water discharges, even if treated, in many harbors, bays and popular anchorages. It allows dumping of untreated sewage by boats underway in the center of major waterways.

There are huge water quality problems in Western Washington, including spills and overflows from treatment plants, industrial chemicals leaching from factory sites and storm water washing every known kind of harmful stuff into rivers, harbors and the sound. The Department of Ecology, and a lot of other agencies and civic groups are working to eliminate or minimize those difficult and dangerous problems. An example: One multi-agency project now underway is the dredging of contaminated material from the bottom of the Duwamish River, which flows into Elliott Bay a few blocks from downtown Seattle.

Meanwhile, the department chooses to focus on a perpetually easy target, us.

The state’s own evidence notes that boaters by and large do care about protecting water quality. Boats do carry the federally mandated marine sanitation devices, their operators generally do use pump-out stations on shore and compliance would increase as more stations are provided in the right places.

There are indications that major opposing groups and individuals will pressure Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to rein in the Department of Ecology. If that doesn’t happen and a NDZ petition gets to EPA, perhaps some diligent servant will stamp it “redundant” and send it back.

(Remember my friends who crewed on a boat with only a bucket for a toilet? They tell me the fisherman did so well last season that he had cash for major boat improvements, including a proper marine toilet. )

(If you would like to comment on the proposed NDZ, send your words before April 21