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NDZs are not the answer

Most boaters and anglers are environmentalists in the sense that they want to keep American waterways clean and natural and I count myself among them. But when it comes to sewage-discharge laws, I call them bull----.

Yet again, environmental authorities are trying to establish a no-discharge zone, this time in Puget Sound, although absolutely no one can link any significant sewage pollution to boaters. An NDZ means that even boats with treatment systems, such as those manufactured by Raritan, cannot pump treated effluent overboard.

The United States already boasts the most poop-centric boating laws in the world, effectively banning the discharge of sewage until a boat is three miles offshore. Compare this to France, a beautiful country with a high standard of living. We took a canal boat for a six-day cruise through the Burgundy region. We never stopped for a pumpout because there was no holding tank. Ours and hundreds of other boats directly discharged into the canals. The French don’t give a hoot.

Same goes for the Bahamas. Same goes for the Virgin Islands. Same goes for just about everywhere. Now I know some North American boaters are probably aghast to learn this; these are people who have developed a form of Stockholm syndrome vis-à-vis their holding tanks.

Nearly every boat in the Bahamas and the Caribbean is directly discharging into the water, with few reported ill effects. That includes the big charter fleets.

Nearly every boat in the Bahamas and the Caribbean is directly discharging into the water, with few reported ill effects. That includes the big charter fleets.

Again, let me parse the European perspective, based on the curious fact that European boats exported to the United States have smallish holding tanks, compared with those built here or manufactured in Asia for the American market. In fact, the first model of a particular French cruising boat sold on these shores had a holding tank of a mere 15 gallons, a veritable chamber pot, compared with the 40 gallons that some experts consider the norm if one is to cruise American waterways and be able to spend a couple of nights at anchor here and there.

Clearly the Europeans cannot believe that anyone would be so obtuse as to think that boat effluent makes a difference in the scheme of things. They don’t understand us and our poop fetish.

I do believe NDZs should be a tool in our anti-pollution locker, used intelligently. I think Nantucket Harbor should be an NDZ. It’s an enclosed basin with an important shellfish industry. In my old hometown, Onset Bay, on Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts, probably rates an NDZ. But the entire fast-moving, fast-flushing Buzzards Bay itself? That’s an offense against logic.

About 280 million gallons of raw sewage flow into New Bedford’s Acushnet River annually, and that’s just one river from one town feeding Buzzards Bay. That’s because New Bedford has antiquated sewage treatment facilities, and it is not alone. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates an annual national discharge of 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage through leaks, broken pipes and other mishaps.

I like to look at Florida because here, in my adopted state, marine sanitation regulations have spawned the waterborne equivalent of the southern speed trap. In Florida, state and local police have the statutory right to board a boat to ensure that the Y-valve from the head diverts waste into the holding tank, not overboard. The valve has to be locked in place. State Fish & Wildlife, and particularly some county marine patrols, have adopted SWAT-like tactics to catch boaters with Y-valve violations.

They have boarded occupied boats in the middle of the night. They have come alongside vessels under way and jumped aboard. They have even boarded vessels with guns drawn — all for the sake of a $175 fine.

Meanwhile, in October a quarter-million gallons of sewage flowed into Miami waters after a sewer pipe burst. In the past three years, Broward County’s decrepit sewer lines have ruptured more than 65 times, spilling close to 50 million gallons of raw sewage into its waterways. It’s difficult to get a figure for the entire state of Florida — one of those inconvenient truths — but I wouldn’t be surprised if a billion gallons of crap water flowed into the ICW every year from treatment plants overloaded by rain, including those that dump into the NDZ of the Florida Keys.

Every once in a while some Florida municipality gets slapped with a fine — usually about $40,000 — and the spills continue.

Seattle may be doing more than Florida to upgrade its aging sewage treatment facilities, but accidents continue to put more fecal matter into Puget Sound than all boaters (multiplied) could ever come close to dumping. And there’s little evidence that folks are direct-discharging to begin with; boaters up there are a community-minded, law-abiding bunch that visit pumpout stations regularly.

By the law of unintended consequences, the NDZ system, if it has had any effect at all, may actually be doing the opposite of what proponents seek. Case in point: me. I have a LectraSan treatment device on my boat. It may not be Perrier that comes out of my seacock, but it’s fairly free of pollutants.

 A LectraSan, and its more advanced brethren from Raritan Engineering, are a little bigger than a large battery and significantly purify sewage for discharge overboard.

A LectraSan, and its more advanced brethren from Raritan Engineering, are a little bigger than a large battery and significantly purify sewage for discharge overboard.

Were it not for these big NDZs, many more boats would have treatment systems like mine. They’re expensive, after all. For the environmental types pushing NDZs, treatment systems are not good enough because the resulting discharge is not perfectly clean — a classic example of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

So now the law-abiding boater in the Florida Keys goes to a pumpout station in the morning, and the boat’s sewage is sucked out and mingled with municipal waste. Then come the daily afternoon rains. The deluge overwhelms the local sewage treatment plant, and that boat’s waste and several thousand gallons of the household variety then flow untreated into those same aquamarine waters. How is that better than an on-board treatment system?

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe boat waste does pose a huge threat to the environment. But we can’t tell because the environment is overwhelmed by other, much bigger sources of fecal material, not to mention other types of toxic runoff. Why don’t we fix the major causes of pollution, then proceed in a scientific fashion to determine what effects, if any, boat waste has on waterways — treated or untreated?

It will never happen.