Casco Bay may soon become Maine’s first federally designated “No Discharge Zone.” In the interest of the environment and human health, federal, state, and local governments and the nonprofit Friends of Casco Bay have formed a partnership to declare the practice of discharging boat sewage into the Bay obsolete. The federal “No Discharge Zone” designation means that all sewage waste from boats must either be emptied at a pumpout station or discharged more than three miles offshore outside state waters. In Casco Bay, that means outside a line drawn from Cape Elizabeth to Halfway Rock and Small Point in Phippsburg.

Why the focus on boat sewage, and why now? According to Pam Parker, boat pumpout program coordinator for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), No Discharge Zones on the Maine coast have been in DEP’s plan since 1999. Last year the legislature required DEP to move the idea forward. “We decided to start with Casco Bay as a pilot, and to go through the process before working with other areas on the coast,” says Parker. Other harbors currently on DEP’s short list are major recreational boating harbors like Camden, Rockport, Southwest Harbor, Northeast Harbor and Boothbay Harbor.

The overall goal is to reduce pollution, with bacteria the primary contaminant of concern for human health. But nutrients in boat waste also can also pose problems, especially in warmer inshore waters where dissolved oxygen is low. Fertilization of nearshore bays from shoreside runoff — and from boat waste — can cause algal blooms and anoxic conditions that lead to wholesale die-offs of marine life.

Flushing your boat’s head straight into the bay has been illegal since the 1970s, but is permitted in offshore waters. By law, all boats with installed toilets are required to have an approved and operable “Marine Sanitation Device” or MSD that affords some level of effluent treatment. Type I and II MSDs offer increasing levels of treatment before the waste goes overboard. Recreational boats smaller than 65 feet need a Type I, but the vast majority of these don’t have heads at all (they are typically too small). Those with heads typically have a Y-valve connecting it to either a holding tank or a through-hull line that allows sewage to be pumped directly overboard, but only when the boat is outside state waters, beyond the three-mile limit.

Boat owners who will feel the biggest pinch from the no discharge area are the ones with larger boats having expensive Type I or II treatment systems and no holding tank at all. “A Type-I device treats the waste poorly then discharges it,” says Joe Payne of Friends of Casco Bay.

Currently Maine has no official no-discharge area, although individual harbors and marinas have made it their policy. The DEP’s Parker says that most large vessels such as tankers and cruise ships already operate under agreements with terminal and port operators not to discharge sewage in state waters, and for most, it poses no problem since they typically operate outside state waters where no-discharge rules don’t apply. But some larger marinas serving recreational boats, including DiMillo’s and Maine Yacht Center in Portland, are ahead of the curve with their own no-discharge zones.

A state law passed in 1989 has required marinas with 18 slips or moorings to provide vessel pumpout facilities, but equipment was slow to get onto local waterfronts. Federal funding by way of the Clean Vessel Act, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, helped get more pumpouts established by covering 75 percent of the cost. “Some marinas have kicked and screamed” about the requirement to have pumpout facilities, according to Parker. “They see it as a pain in the neck, but it’s a pretty sweet deal.” The Clean Vessel Act was originally authorized on a national level by Congress in 1992 and has been reauthorized with funding several times since.

Parker says she has gone through her grant allotment every year since 1999, and hopes to have grant funding available at least through June 2005, when she has to re-apply for federal grant funding. Since the DEP took over the program in 1999, it has provided three-quarters of the cost for over 80 pumpout installations in Maine, and through the end of this year her program has spent a total of $1.3 million.

“Most of that is direct pass-through funding for pumpout facilities,” says Parker. Some also pays for educational efforts and Parker’s salary. “We’ve been so busy installing pumpouts, we haven’t been able to focus on education,” says Parker. “From now on, it’s going to be more operations, maintenance, and education.”

Maine harbormasters are the first to educate, since they are the nearest on the ground enforcers of the no discharge area. According to Parker, many have expressed concern about how they will be able to enforce it.

"JohnJohn Dalton, Falmouth harbormaster, says the pumpout facility the town installed last summer posed some initial problems but eventually the system smoothed out. “This pumpout we put in is more work,” says Dalton. “There was a steep learning curve, for boaters and for us. That first pumpout was interesting. But people were great.” Dalton, who also serves as president of the Maine Harbormasters Association, supports the vessel pumpout requirement. “At least you’re doing some good, it’s not useless labor. It’ll work as one person sees how easy it is and they do it, and it catches on.”

Friends of Casco Bay was an early instigator to get pumpout facilities on the waterfront. In 1995 the Friends got a boat and started a mobile pumpout service around Casco Bay. In the first year they did 58. “A couple years after the word got out, we did 1,171 pumpouts, more than the other facilities in Maine,” says Baykeeper Joe Payne. Casco Bay’s no-discharge area might be looked upon by marinas as yet another thing they have to manage. “It’s not fun, and people don’t like talking about it,” says DEP’s Parker. She contends that marinas and harbormasters can make it relatively painless by following Friends of Casco Bay’s model, where customers have their boats pumped out on a schedule and never see the honey wagon. Instead they receive a call or an email informing them that their holding tank has been emptied out. “Demand for the service has been incredible,” says Payne. “We are now encouraging people to do their own pumpouts or have the marina do it so we can focus on places where there are no pumpout services.”

All parties agree that ultimately, it is customers who are most likely to make a no discharge area succeed. “Early on, people didn’t want to deal with pumpouts,” says Payne. “Now, clientele expect it of a full service marina. People plan their trip through the Intercoastal Waterway by looking at pumpout guides.”