OCEANSIDE— When Bobbi Thornton, owner of Suck It Up Sally, a mobile pump out service, stood before the Oceanside Harbor and Beaches Advisory Committee (HAC), April 24, her convictions regarding the perils of black water dumping in the harbor were palpable.
“We’re not monitoring it,” Thornton argued. “The California Water Code regulations state that any vessel used as a place of habitation should be regulated and monitored for their sewage usage discharge… people are dumping black water into our harbor.”
To boaters, black water is the conglomeration of human waste stored in vessel holding tanks. According to the California Coastal Commission’s Clean Boating overview, it is against federal and state law to “discharge untreated sewage anywhere within the three-mile territorial limit or even treated sewage into any designated No Discharge Zone.” Fines of up to $2,000 can be imposed for illegal discharge.
In place is also Congress’ Clean Water Act of 1972. The law includes restrictions on marine sewage disposal from vessels, requiring “boats with installed toilets must hold an approved Marine Sanitation Devices (MSD) designed to hold sewage for pump out or for discharge in the ocean beyond a three mile limit.”
Thornton, who services five of the 95 liveaboards in Oceanside Harbor, said most boats are not being regulated and the waters have been contaminated. Average liveaboards carry 20 to 40 gallon holding tanks for waste water, according to Thornton. After staging her business at the harbor for the past four years, she said she hardly sees anyone at the public pump out stations.
“For one 30 gallon tank of concentrated human waste dumped into that harbor, it’s like 10,000 people flush their toilet at home and it went into the water,” she said.
Thornton, who charges $35 for her services, told city officials that if they developed a contractual agreement with Suck It Up Sally, she could pump out every boat in the harbor for $10 a month.
“It’s a win-win solution,” she said. “They clean up the problem. They know that these boats are being pumped out. They don’t have to worry about contaminated water and it’s a minimum fee.”
Still, apprehensions over the cost of monitoring, the viability of self-policing and general intrigue have forced HAC committee members Liz Rhea and Jim Jenkins to form a subcommittee to investigate those processes instituted by outlying marinas and harbors.
“Four years ago, I brought it up to the last city manager,” Rhea said. “I came up with a solution. It was the dye tablets.”
Dye Tab Programs
To help improve marine water quality and reduce bacterial threats, several Southern California harbors have implemented dye tab programs. Through this program, a city official or harbor patrol officer conducts a thorough inspection of a boat’s holding tank. If the vessel has an installed toilet—plumbed with a Y-valve, one going overboard and one going into the holding tank—officials will often wire shut the valve traveling overboard, ensure the valve flowing into the tank is open and then flush a dye tab into the tank.
Avalon Harbor is a pioneer in the fight to police black water dumping. Since 1988, boaters who cruise into the harbor must pass a dye tab test. If the tanks leak, the water treading around the vessel will change color and the boat is immediately removed from the harbor.
According to a 1992 article in the Los Angeles Times, the harbor was nearly shut down in the late 80s due to high levels of pollution. Since then, the harbor has become the gold standard in implementing the dye tab process.
“We’ve had people from all over the world call and ask about it,” Avalon Harbormaster Brian Bray said.
Avalon traffics 18,000 recreational boats per year and abides by a municipal code which reads in part that it is unlawful for any person to throw, discharge, deposit, or leave any refuse matter into the navigable waters of the city. Additionally, Avalon officials warn boaters against tampering with the process, removing the tabs or adding foreign substances to interfere with the process. The harbor has the authority to ban boaters for one year upon illegal discharge and two years if a subject is caught tampering with the tablets.
“It’s zero tolerance,” said Bray, who has three boats on his active ban list. “If dye comes out, they’re issued a citation and immediately removed from the harbor…then the citation is a court appearance. They can call the courts and pay the bail on it. It’s up to a $500 fine. Nobody’s concerned about that portion of it. What they’re concerned about is being bumped out of the harbor for a year.”
Avalon is home to one pump out dock and two pump out stations, but boaters are well aware of the rules once they reach the harbor.
“We assign a boat to a mooring when it reaches our harbor entrance,” Bray explained. “Once they’re on the mooring, our patrol boat goes by, boards the boat, puts the dye tablets in the toilets, has them flush the toilets to make sure that nothing comes out to make sure they don’t have a Y valve that’s turned in the wrong direction…since it’s been in effect for so long, people are aware of it before they come in. If they’re not, we make them aware of it.”
In Santa Barbara, Harbor Operations Manager Mick Kronman and his staff institute a similarly stringent municipal code which makes it unlawful for any person to discharge, either directly or indirectly, any pollutant or contaminating substance or material into the waters of the Santa Barbara Harbor District.
The harbor, seeking to eliminate black water disposal occurrences, has five pump out stations around the harbor.
“In March, I reported 5,938 minutes at about five gallons a minute,” Kronman said of the pump out stations usage. That’s approximately 30,000 gallons of sewage.
“We also have a Clean Marine Program where we test during the dry months of the year bacterial testing at seven different locations in the harbor. Dye tabs are only one component of our solution, prevention and control in our Clean Marina Program.”
In 2013, Santa Barbara conducted 1,087 MSD inspections on visiting vessels, split transactions and liveaboards, a figure equating to 187 times a vessel was inspected for dye tabs, according to Kronman. He said in a typical month, Santa Barbara, with its 1,100 recreational boats, is at full occupancy. In 2013, the department had a total of nine reported or witnessed pollution violations and of those, seven received warnings and were handed a pollution packet.
“Offenders can lose their slip permits,” Kronman said. “The cool thing is we have a harbor full of responsible individuals who actually report. The officers aren’t the only ones cruising around looking for violations. If somebody dumps, we usually know about it.”
In 2010, The Log reported that visiting boats on Newport Harbor guest moorings were to be inspected by Harbor Patrol officers and given dye tablets to place in holding tanks. But the execution of that program remains at a standstill.
“It was and it wasn’t,” said Orange County Sheriff’s Harbor Patrol Harbormaster Lt. Mike Jansen, who took over the position in 2013. “The sheriff’s department, they took an approach of yes, we’d like to see it being done on a volunteer type basis, not being done directly to everyone because we don’t have the staff to do it, first of all. It could be done on a voluntary basis and randomly.”
Jansen said the city of Newport Beach, along with the city attorney, is looking into where the program currently stands.
“Right now, when somebody comes in to rent a mooring from us we’re not requiring a dye tab to put in their boat,” he said. As some harbors contemplate the options of program institution, Thornton said she sees only one straightforward resolution for Oceanside.
“My solution is a mandatory pump out,” Thornton said. “Every boat in the harbor should be pumped out once a month.”