For a small place, Herring Bay has a lot of users. Its beaches are used by terrapin turtles and horseshoe crabs for nesting. Four public beaches are also popular with people.
Offshore, the shallow water holds underwater grasses that are used as nursery grounds by blue crabs. Oysters use the bay, located in southern Anne Arundel County, for reefs. Bald eagles and osprey hunt fish and nest along its shores.
The bay is also used by boaters: It is home to 16 marinas, with more than 2,000 slips.
But there is one thing Herring Bay can no longer be used for: as a disposal area for human waste from boats.
Maryland recently designated Herring Bay as the first “no discharge zone” in the Chesapeake. That means no boat can discharge excrement, even if its onboard sanitation system treats the waste first.
Restricting boat wastes, said Steuart Chaney, owner of the Herrington Harbour Marina, will help attract boaters to the area.
“I think being a no discharge zone puts us at a competitive advantage, not a disadvantage,” said Chaney, a member of Maryland’s Lower Western Shore Tributary Team, who advocated the designation. “Where do people want to be — where there is sewage in the water, or no sewage in the water? That is a pretty simple answer to me.”
Further, Chaney said, the designation signals that boaters are willing to do their part to clean the Chesapeake. Baywide, boat discharges are considered to be a minor nutrient problem, but in small coves and bays with many boats and poor circulation, wastes can cause local water quality problems, including the contamination of shellfish beds with bacteria.
“No one can argue that with a no discharge zone, that the water quality should be clearer,” Chaney said.
Setting aside the 3,145-acre Herring Bay as a no discharge zone is a result of an issue debated around the Chesapeake for more than a decade. As far back as 1991, a Bay Program report suggested that sensitive areas of the Chesapeake should get such a designation.
In negotiations during the writing of the Chesapeake 2000 agreement, some advocated establishing the entire Bay as a no discharge zone, something others considered impractical for such a large waterbody. The final agreement called for establishing no discharge zones in “appropriate areas” within the Bay.
Since then, Maryland has identified roughly 95,000 acres of sensitive areas that may qualify for future designations. Primarily, they are sites with sensitive living resources, such as oyster bars, and significant boat congregations.
But state officials are waiting to see how Herring Bay, and a Northern Coastal Bays no discharge zone established outside the Chesapeake, fare before establishing more, said Teresa Moore, director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Waterway and Greenways Division.
“We have pre-identified the areas where we think they make sense,” she said. “But we would like to see local support. We don’t want to cram them down people’s throats. But if we see problems with boat sewage or water quality, we might be more proactive.”
Virginia recently established its first no discharge zone, but it was on an inland lake outside the Bay watershed. Nonetheless, with an eye toward the Chesapeake 2000 agreement, officials are planning to rewrite state regulations to make the establishment of additional no discharge zones easier.
In large part, the designation of no discharge zones is symbolic. Proponents of such designations argue that if the roughly 400,000 registered boat owners around the Bay don’t manage their sewage, why should anyone else?
But the term “no discharge zone” sounds a lot more meaningful than it actually is. Under federal law, it’s already illegal to discharge untreated human waste into the Bay, or any waterway within three miles of the U.S. coast.
No discharge zones actually affect only a small number of boats that have devices to treat wastes — usually with a chemical to kill fecal coliform germs — then discharge them into the water. Although onboard treatment can reduce bacteria, it does nothing to control nutrients.
According to a survey conducted by Maryland DNR, boats with that kind of treatment device probably account for only about 5.2 percent of recreational vessels that are 22 feet or longer. The majority of boats either have toilets with holding tanks, porta potties or nothing at all.
“In essence, it’s a small piece of the pie,” said Margaret Podlich, of the BoatU.S. Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water, which develops educational programs for boaters.
Podlich agreed that no discharge zones are “wonderful tools for specific areas that need extra-special environmental protections” such as Herring Bay, and other small, poorly flushed areas where wastes can pose a problem.
At the same time, she said efforts to establish no discharge zones over large water bodies limit options for boaters, especially those on long trips. “The idea of no discharge zones in huge bodies of water — for example, the entire Chesapeake Bay — is something that BoatU.S. as well as other groups are concerned about,” Podlich added.
A no discharge zone is not a “quick fix” for boat sewage, she said. It will require continued efforts by boaters, and public agencies, to make sure that there are convenient ways for boaters to dump wastes and go to the restroom onshore.
Some marine industry groups have also opposed large-scale no discharge zones because onboard treatment devices give boaters an alternative to frequently crowded waste pumpout facilities. Nonetheless, six states have established no discharge zones for all of their waterways.
It hasn’t been until recent years that any area around the Bay qualified for designation as a no discharge zone.
Under federal regulations, a no discharge zone can only be established when there is an adequate number of “pumpouts” to drain sewage from boats’ holding tanks. The federal standard called for a minimum of one pumpout for every 300–600 boats in a no discharge zone.
A decade ago, few areas of the Bay would have met that requirement. The Virginia Department of Health in the 1980s proposed making part of the Rappahannock River a no discharge zone, but the effort failed because there were not enough waste disposal alternatives for boaters.
In the past decade, though, both states have made efforts to promote pumpouts.
Half of Maryland’s 600 marinas today have pumpouts that can drain wastes from on-board holding tanks and porta potties. In 1989, only 30 marinas had pumpouts,. and many of those operated poorly and cost up to $25 to use.
Virginia today has 190 pumpouts in the Bay watershed, and another 371 dump stations where boaters can empty porta potties.
Both states typically require marinas with more than 50 slips to have a pumpout, and both have grant programs, supported by the federal Clean Vessel Act, which fund 75 percent of the cost of a pumpout installation. By regulation, any marina that uses a grant can charge boaters no more than $5 for pumpout service.
That’s not the full story, though. Boaters frequently complain that pumpouts don’t work, and at the end of a weekend, they can be crowded. In some instances, they may not be easily accessible by larger boats, or those we deeper drafts.
“We can’t just rest on the number of pumpouts that are out there,” Podlich said. “We have to remember that they have to work for people to accomplish keeping sewage out of the water.”
Indeed, a 1999 Maryland DNR survey found that many people reported pumpouts were inconvenient to use, and 39 percent said they had experienced problems with nonfunctioning pumpouts.
To encourage upkeep, Maryland provides operation and maintenance grants to marinas with pumpouts. Marinas getting the money must inform the DNR whenever the pumpout is out-of-order. If they don’t, and the state gets three complaints during the course of the year, they lose the grant.
“That way, we’re not sitting here blissfully saying we’ve got 300 pumpouts, but none of them are working,” said Don O’Neill, who oversees the DNR’s pumpout program.
Numbers show that more people are using pumpouts over time. O’Neill estimates that 1 million gallons of human waste a year are now being pumped out of boats in the state and sent to wastewater treatment plants. In 1994, less than 65,000 gallons were pumped out.
What no one knows is how much untreated waste is illegally going into the water. As a practical matter, the simple act of turning a ‘Y’-shaped valve near the boat’s toilet allows someone to get rid of untreated wastes that can smell up their boat.
Although it’s illegal to discharge untreated wastes from boats, the law is essentially unenforceable because no one can spot discharges, which occur below the waterline.
The same is true for no discharge zones. Maryland’s proposal for a no discharge zone in Herring Bay says violators could be subject to a $1,000 fine, but acknowledges that enforcement will be “challenging” and rely primarily on education.
The Maryland survey found that 18 percent of owners of boats 22 feet or longer — those most likely to be on the Bay for an extended period of time — said they never use boat pumpouts, and 30 percent said they use one less than once a month.
“Basically, the idea is to make pumpouts available,” said Preston Smith, who oversees pumpout programs with the Virginia Department of Health. “If you make it available and they are easy to use, there is no excuse to turn a ‘Y’ valve into a discharge.”
To promote that idea, both states — along with many marinas — have launched educational efforts to promote pumpout use. In Virginia, the Department of Health for the past seven years has funded the Hampton Roads Sanitation District to spread the word to boaters.
The district hires nine to 10 interns each summer who are divided into three teams that visit marinas every weekend. They distribute literature and offer free pumpouts by wheeling a portable pumpout device up and down the docks.
“We’re trying to get a message across to these boaters that it is not that hard to do, and it is something that is important to do,” said George Kennedy, of HRSD, who oversees the program. “We’re trying to avoid turning it into a service for people who are just too lazy to pump their own boats out.”
Each summer, the program pumps out about 6,000 gallons of sewage, he said.
Keeping boat wastes out of the water means more than just having — and using — pumpouts, Podlich said.
Most boats, she noted, are 16 feet or less in length and are used only for day trips. They have no built-in toilets, although boaters may take a porta potty, bucket — or nothing at all.
What those boaters need, she said, is clean, accessible restrooms at public boat launches or other other accessible areas. Yet for budget and other reasons, public agencies are often reluctant to provide such facilities. “Where do we expect the boaters to go?” Podlich asked.
“To designate a no discharge zone and expect it to solve all the problems regarding boat waste is very naive,” she said. “I would hate for no discharge zones to be perceived as an instant fix by those who have not really researched this topic.”
Nonetheless, Chaney believes the entire Bay should eventually be a no discharge zone, and that Herring Bay will serve as a model. Although he agrees that waste from boaters probably has little overall impact on water quality, it sends an important message to others that boaters are doing their part to clean up the Bay.
“I believe that by boaters and the industry taking this position, they have taken the highest road possible,” Chaney said.
Establishing no discharge zones, he said, also puts even more pressure on marina owners and government agencies to step up educational efforts to work with boaters. “It is important for boaters to become informed,” he said. “Maybe some of them don’t even know that putting sewage over is not good.”
It also puts pressure on non-boaters, he said. Instead of looking at boaters as a problem, it will help focus attention on other pollution problems in the watershed that are hurting Herring Bay, which has both nutrient and fecal coliform problems.
“If you have a no discharge zone, you can’t stop there,” he said. “You have to look at all of the sources.”
Chaney recently took that message before county planners, arguing that sewer service should be extended to a development in the headwaters of Herring Bay where septic systems were failing.
“If you people do not believe that this area should have sewers,” Chaney said at a hearing, “then Herring Bay is not the place for the first no discharge zone on the Bay.”
They voted to expand the sewer system — something Chaney said will help make Herring Bay a better place for all of its other users.