Marinas, boatyards and yacht clubs across the mid-Atlantic have joined an effort to curb water pollution: the Clean Marina program.Pat Shugars at Knapps Narrows Marina bags large pieces of shrink wrap into bags for recycling. The plastic material is used to cover boats in the winter. (Dave Harp)

The title, awarded by marine officials in 32 states, is reserved for facilities that take steps to reduce contaminants from boats and boatyards that would otherwise foul the waters beneath their docks. Participants affix specially designed logos to their brochures and websites and fly flags that boaters can easily spot from the water.

The program grew out of Congress’ 1990 update of the Coastal Zone Management Act. Instead of handing down more regulations, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency partnered to oversee a voluntary, state-managed cleanup of the marina industry.

The first Clean Marina program took effect 20 years ago — in Maryland. Elsewhere in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, initiatives in Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia were all operating by 2006. Although the campaign has improved stewardship practices at many facilities, their measurable impact is largely unknown.

A marina is a potential hotbed for water pollution. In many cases, it’s a one-stop shop where boaters can pressure-wash and paint their hulls, pump out sewage tanks and gas up their engines at fuel pumps. Copper, zinc, mercury, nutrients, untreated sewage and other harmful contaminants have been traced to those and other marina activities.

There’s little margin for error, too, because marinas lie directly on and beside the water, giving pollution a direct path to waterways. The facilities also tend to be enveloped by impervious surfaces — asphalt parking lots and concrete boat ramps — that don’t absorb or filter pollutants.

To become certified in Maryland, facilities implement a number of “best management practices” outlined by state officials in the Maryland Clean Marina Guidebook. The practices include steps such as locating maintenance areas “as far from shore as possible,” “discouraging” underwater hull cleaning, avoiding the use of creosote-treated wood and planting vegetation around parking lots.

Facilities are inspected every few years to ensure compliance in each state. But, in part because the program is voluntary, there is virtually no tracking of how water quality responds to the activities undertaken by marina owners. In Maryland, stormwater discharge permits — a regulatory requirement — trigger quarterly monitoring at marinas, but the tests consist of “visual inspections” performed by a marina employee.

Scholarly databases display little research on the subject. One of the few researchers who has examined the Clean Marina program said he struggled to find a journal publisher interested in his article.

“I had to frame [marinas] as a transportation hub,” said Bill Ritchie of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA.

At Knapps Narrows Marina, Joe Bradley uses a vacuum-assisted sander that keeps dust from toxic paint on the boat’s bottom from becoming airborne. (Dave Harp)Even if the Clean Marina program’s environmental benefits were more clearly understood, the modest number of participating facilities has likely watered down its impact. About 25 percent of Maryland’s 600 marinas and their brethren have become certified. In Virginia, the rate is at most 20 percent of its 350–400 facilities.

Asked how he gauges the program’s performance, Peter Hall, a former marina owner who has been managing Virginia’s program since its director stepped down eight months ago, points to testimonials.

“A lot of that stuff is not tracked,” he said. “But I think you have to be sort of observing it from the [perspective of] guys who are on the inside, the marina owners. They’re seeing increases in their customer base. The boaters are coming in because the marina is clean. It’s neat and well kept.”

Like Hall, many participants describe the program’s returns in both financial and environmental terms.

“People know if you’re certified you’re going to be a decent marina,” said Emily Fletcher, office manager at Bay Boat Works in North East, MD, an early adopter of the Clean Marina standards. The locally owned, 140-slip facility received about $100,000 in state grant money to bring itself up to the Clean Marina standard in 2002.

Bay Boat Works spent about a year making necessary upgrades. Owners Don and Mary Green bought a boat whose sole purpose was to meet vessels in the water and pump out their sewage holding tanks. They placed a sewage pump-out system on its docks and installed a cloth-lined drain to capture wash water. And staff members devoted countless hours to environmental training.

“It was nice to be green,” said Mary Green, adding that it allowed the facility to get out in front of future water quality mandates. “You could see the writing on the wall: These regulations were going to be enforced one way or the other.”

In 2011, for example, Maryland began requiring marinas to capture and process the wastewater discharged by pressure-washing boat bottoms if it was too polluted to begin with. Today, all but a few have either installed systems that loop the wastewater back through the washer or rout the water into public sewer drains.

Knapp’s Narrows Marina in Tilghman, MD, was ahead of the curve. It began catching the pressure-washing water long before the requirement went into effect. Becoming a Clean Marina was about more than a logo, said Pat Shugars, the marina’s general manager.

“We didn’t like all the waste that was going on,” he said, adding that he hopes other marinas make the effort to get certified as well. “It’s time for people to wake up and say, ‘If you want crabs and you want oysters, you’d better watch what you put in the water.’”

Not everyone is impressed by what the program offers, though. Norm Turner, owner of Horn Harbor Marina in Port Haywood, VA, said he doesn’t see the need for voluntary actions when those prescribed by government stormwater and wastewater permits are already strong.

“Yeah, it’s a sticker or stamp that says you abide by these guidelines,” he said, “but the truth is marinas abide by their own stringent standards to begin with.”

In 2001, EPA researchers investigated water quality at five marinas on Lake Texoma on the Texas-Oklahoma border, focusing on MTBE, a gasoline additive suspected of causing cancer in humans.

They discovered that the chemical appeared in the water only from May to October, a period coinciding with the boating season. Samples taken of water beneath the boat docks turned up with the most detections, suggesting the spills typically occurred upon engine startup, they said.

That issue is less glaring today, though. Statewide bans and gas companies’ concerns over legal liability have largely phased out the use of MTBE in gasoline.

In 2018, a study of hundreds of Florida beaches led by University of Miami researchers found that those with nearby marinas were more prone to levels of fecal bacteria high enough to trigger swimming advisories or closures. And an Australian paper in the late-1980s suggested marinas could have a “major impact” in sediments from the buildup heavy metals and petroleum hydrocarbons but concluded that the levels were “similar to those in other areas affected by human activity.”

Studies on Clean Marina programs are rarer still. In Ritchie’s case, the topic rests at the intersection of two of his greatest passions: sailing and quality management in the commercial sector.

In a 2017 article for the journal Transportation Research, Ritchie and two colleagues looked at the traits of participating marinas in Florida’s program. The state has signed up 325 marinas, about 16 percent of the total number of facilities.

The early adopters tended to be those located within a cluster of marinas, they found, suggesting a bandwagon effect. The state has created a Clean Marina flag (complete with a pelican silhouette) that facilities can display, signaling to passing vessels their participation in the program. For some customers, that may be the deciding factor that makes them stop at one marina over another, the management professor said.

Marinas located in areas with a lower concentration of competition had less incentive to stand out from the crowd and were slower to get on board, if at all, he said.

The phenomenon his team observed underscores a larger issue with such voluntary initiatives, Ritchie added. “What we have is a public benefit, not a private benefit,” he said. “That’s a big question for business owners: ‘What’s in it for me?’ ”

Officials in Maryland and Virginia are careful to highlight the potential marketing benefits while making their case for the program to potential applicants. Both offer “Clean Marina” flags business can fly and logos they can weave into their advertising materials. Both also list participating marinas on their official websites. Improvements can also result in insurance premium savings, officials say.

To sweeten the deal, Virginia has partnered with marina trade groups to offer 5 percent discounts to participants in conferences and training workshops. Newly added Maryland marinas receive a certificate signed by the governor, lieutenant governor and the secretary of the Department of Natural Resources. A press release issued statewide announces their inclusion, and they can attend an annual awards ceremony for new members.

Donna Morrow, who manages the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ program, said those who participate generally are the ones who already pride themselves on being clean facilities. She would like to see more join, but she doesn’t expect significant growth to occur.

“It would be great to have more, but it’s a voluntary program,” Morrow said. “It’s up to these businesses that are often small businesses with competing priorities.”