Local environmental groups and boaters are debating the potential benefits and costs of prohibiting discharge of treated or untreated sewage, called blackwater, into Puget Sound.
The state Department of Ecology submitted a draft proposal for listing Puget Sound as a No Discharge Zone to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week. Ecology says the change would help improve marine water quality and reduce bacterial threats to human and shellfish health along its shores.
Under current rules, treated sewage can be discharged anywhere and untreated sewage can be discharged more than 3 miles from shore. Existing on-board sewage sanitation systems release bacteria at 10 times the standard for human recreation and 72 times the standard for shellfish beds, according to Ecology.
If a No Discharge Zone is approved, all recreational and commercial boats would have to store waste in holding tanks and disposed of it at designated pump-out stations or more than 3 miles outside of the zone.
Anacortes resident Jim Ramey cleans and details boats in the Anacortes area and thinks the No Discharge Zone is a good idea.
"I think it's important to keep our Sound clean because it's the only one we have," he said Thursday while finishing a job at Cap Sante Marina.
Marina employees support the idea, as well, said Cap Sante Marina operator Dale Fowler and customer service representative Joe Brannon.
"Everyone I know of in the boating industry is supportive of it," Fowler said.
Over the last quarter century, he's witnessed a change in attitude among boaters from resistance to environmental rules.
Using pump-out stations and environmentally friendly products such as the phosphate-free soap Ramey uses to wash boats are now commonplace, Fowler said.
Cap Sante Marina has a nodumping policy and offers seven 24-hour pump-out stations free of charge, along with a weekly pumpout service as part of live-aboard boat contracts.
"The boaters that come here love it. They like to know the harbor is clean," Fowler said.
Because such practices are typical in managed facilities like marinas, Fowler said he thinks the proposed rule would most benefit shoreline areas where boats anchor without nearby pump-out services and bacteria pollution threatens shellfish.
Ecology Regional Administrator Josh Baldi said that like Skagit County's management of septic systems - a major piece of the Clean Samish Initiative to reduce bacterial closures of Samish Bay shellfish harvest - a No Discharge Zone would act similarly to prevent fecal pollution from boats.
Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve Stewardship Committee member Scott Peterson, who is also a boater, said the environmental effects Ecology may anticipate from the rule change are complicated by many point and non-point sources of pollution in the Sound.
"Their point is that this is one source of pollution, and it's a fairly simple one to fix because they know about it," he said. But only about 5 percent of recreational and 6 percent of commercial boats in the area would be affected.
Petersen attended a meeting about the proposal in Bellingham on Tuesday, hosted by the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve Citizen Stewardship Committee. Ecology Water Quality Specialist Amy Jankowiak presented the proposal to about 15 people, including committee members, the North Sound Baykeeper and area boaters.
Petersen relayed the information to the Fidalgo Bay committee and said its members are reviewing it and deciding whether to submit input during the 60-day public comment period that is now underway.
Ecology is accepting public input on the proposal through April 21. Comments can be emailed to email@example.com or mailed to Department of Ecology, Northwest Regional Office, Attn: Amy Jankowiak, 3190 160th Ave. SE, Bellevue, WA 98008.
More information is available online at skagit.ws/M17Ztw.