Section 1: Sewage Handling Infrastructure

Sewage is a messy fact of life. And on the water, it becomes an even more complex issue. However, becoming educated about sewage handling and following best management practices that help keep sewage out of the water can help clarify what could be considered a murky issue. This section covers why it is important to prevent sewage from entering the water and what you can do to ensure it is handled properly in and around your marina. 

Note: Signage is mentioned throughout Section 1, but for a compiled list of recommended signage, see Section 2: Services and Education.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you should be able to:

  • Explain why discharge of sewage (treated and untreated) is prohibited in your marina.
  • Assist boaters with waste disposal (provide pump-out or direct them to another facility) and manage waste properly.
  • Evaluate shoreside facilities (e.g., laundry room, restrooms) in context of best management practices.

Best Management Practices

Prohibit the Discharge of Sewage

Regardless of No Discharge Zone (NDZ) status, certified Clean Marinas should not allow the discharge of treated or untreated sewage. (Note, it is illegal to discharge treated sewage in NDZs and always illegal to discharge untreated sewage). This practice also includes preventing waste from your pump-out system, septic system or dump station from draining into receiving waters.

  • Prohibit discharge of sewage (treated and untreated) in your marina and prevent waste from your pump-out, septic system, or dump station from draining into receiving waters. check box for Regional Best Management Practice
  • If your marina is located outside an NDZ, prohibit discharge from Type I and Type II marine sanitation devices (MSDs) in your marina as a condition of your lease agreement.
  • If marina is in a NDZ, reference this designation in your contract and direct boaters to properly dispose of waste (i.e., maintain their Type III marine sanitation device, utilize pump-out system).

For more information on NDZs, see: No Discharge Zones (EPA) and the State Laws page for your state. For an explanation of marine sanitation devices (MSDs) see Classroom Unit 6, Section 2: Services and Education.

Install a Pump-out System

Pump-outs are convenient, reliable means of disposing vessel sewage. Some states — including Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin — require that all docking facilities provide pump-out stations or have a signed agreement with another facility to accommodate pump-outs for their vessels. There are currently no such provisions in Minnesota, New York or Pennsylvania. For more information, see the State Laws page for your state.

  • Provide a well-maintained pump-out facility or inform boaters of other pump-out locations for holding tanks and port-a-potties. check box for Regional Best Management Practice

Marina operators may benefit from the installation of a pump-out in several ways. The presence of the pump-out system reaffirms your commitment to maintaining water quality and sends the message that you are environmentally responsible. More tangibly, the need for holding tanks to be pumped out regularly will draw a steady stream of customers to your dock. Each arriving vessel represents an opportunity to sell fuel, hardware and repair services.

If your marina does not have a pump-out facility:

  • Inform your boaters of other pump-out locations.
  • Consider signing an agreement with another marina or facility to provide pump-out services. (This is required in some states.) check box for Regional Best Management Practice

Financial Support

The Clean Vessel Act (CVA) Grant Program is a nationwide competitive federal grant program that provides funds to states to clean up the nation’s waterways. Any public or private marina is eligible to apply for grant funds. Eligible projects include construction, renovation, operation, and maintenance of pump-out and dump stations.

The grant can reimburse recipients for up to 75 percent of the installation cost of pump-out and dump stations. This includes the cost of new equipment, or the renovation or upgrade of existing equipment, as well as necessary pumps, piping, fitting, lift stations, on-site holding tanks, pier or dock modifications, signs, permits, and other miscellaneous equipment needed for a complete and efficient station.

In exchange for grant funding, marina owners agree to maintain pump-out systems in good operating condition for a minimum of 10 years and agree not to charge more than $5 per pump-out. The pump-out system must be able to accept waste from portable toilets as well as holding tanks, and must be available to the public during reasonable business hours.

For information on how to pursue funding through the program, see Clean Vessel Act Grant Program (50 CFR 85) and the State Laws page for your state.

Pump-out System Recommendations

  • Select an appropriate system. Install pump-out facilities and dump stations that meet the marina’s needs. There are three types of onshore sewage collection systems: fixed-point systems, portable/mobile, and dedicated slip-side systems. Ask the manufacturer for a written assurance that their system will operate effectively within the specific conditions (e.g., volume, distance) at your marina. Pump-out equipment should also be designed and set up for easy service in case of clogs or needed repairs.
    • Fixed-point systems are stationary systems, meaning a boat that needs service must move to the pump-out station. A hose is connected to the sanitation device fitting, and a pump or vacuum system moves the waste material into an onshore holding tank or into the sewer system. A fixed-point system should be centrally located and easily accessed by boats.
    • Portable systems are, of course, portable — they can be brought to the boat needing service. They are good for smaller marinas, especially those that offer limited maneuverability within the marina. Though some boaters find them more convenient to use, trained personnel should operate the system. Portable systems must be returned to an area where they can be pumped out, and a full system may be difficult to move. These systems also require more hands-on cleaning.
    • Dedicated slip-side systems provide continuous wastewater collection at select slips within a marina. These are good systems to choose if enough slips can be dedicated to their use. They have a direct connection to the boat and a below-dock, gravity-drained sewer system and use a vacuum-type pump-out system.
  • Have a dump station, wand attachment or an alternative procedure to empty portable toilets. check box for Regional Best Management Practice

Additional equipment recommendations

Head characteristics and capacity for the suction pump should be based on installation needs for the site, but should always be capable of lifting sewage more than 12 feet under vacuum.

    • Recommendation for suction hose: A vacuum hose used in connection with a pump-out facility should be pliable, reinforced and collapse-proof, non-kinking, and equipped with a connection or insert device which will preclude leakage or spillage during the pump-out operation.
    • A quick-connect drip-proof connector should also be fitted to the end of the hose that is attached to the boat-piping outlet.
    • For the suction pump discharge hose: A quality flexible hose, compatible with the pump characteristics, should be used. A firm connection should be ensured at the hose outlet to storage tank or collection sewer entry point. All permanent piping should conform to the state plumbing regulations.
  • Choose a suitable location. Consider where the pump-out will be placed if you select a fixed system. It should easily accommodate the types of boats that frequent your marina. Fuel docks are often good locations, however, try to locate the pump-out system so that a boat being pumped out does not prevent another boat from fueling.

Avoid locations where stormwater runoff can come in contact with equipment. If your facility services significant numbers of transients or boaters from adjacent facilities, you may want to locate the station at the perimeter of the basin to avoid excessive traffic within the facility.

  • Dispose of collected waste.
    • Connect to municipal sewer. The best option for disposing of the collected waste is to connect directly to the public sewer line. If a sewer line is not available in your area, you will need a holding tank or septic system. check box for Regional Best Management Practice
    • Consult your state for waste disposal requirements and standards. check box for Regional Best Management Practice
    • If using a septic system, see “Design and Maintain Septic Systems to Protect Water Quality and Public Health” section below.
    • If using a tank, contents must be pumped periodically and trucked to a treatment plant. Holding tank size and location requirements are generally determined by the local health department.
    • It is recommended that if the sewage is pumped to an on-site holding tank, that the tank be equipped with overfill protection, including overfill alarm to warn personnel of impending overflows to surface waters.
  • Decide if the pump-out will be staffed. Ideally, have marina staff assist boaters with pump-out operation. Consider installing a buzzer or paging system so boaters at the pump-out station can easily locate the attendant. If the station is unattended, be sure that clear instructions are posted. check box for Regional Best Management Practice
  • Train employees to handle collected waste with care. For health reasons, train employees to take precautions to avoid coming into direct contact with sewage. Require that employees wear rubber gloves during pumping and respirators when maintaining or repairing MSDs.
  • Decide whether to charge a fee. If you do charge a fee, how much will it be? Will tenants and “live-aboards” be charged? Or just transients? Remember, no more than $5 may be charged if Clean Vessel Act grant funds were accepted for the purchase or installation of the system. If the pump-out system is not regularly staffed, you will have to make arrangements to collect a fee (e.g., a token system). Consider providing a free pump-out with a fuel fill-up.
  • Post signs. Use signs to mark pump-out station locations and provide instructions for correct operation. Provide information about the appropriate use and cost of the pump-out station, hours of operation, and where to call for service if the system is out of order. Also, post signs that are visible from the channel so that passing boaters are aware of the facility. If you do not have a pump-out system, post directions to the closest public system. check box for Regional Best Management Practice
  • Maintain the pump-out system.
    • Implement a regular maintenance schedule to keep pump-out stations clean and in service. Keep a log sheet of pump-out maintenance. check box for Regional Best Management Practice
    • Contact the pump-out manufacturer for specific maintenance and winterization recommendations.
    • During the boating season, test the efficiency of the pump weekly by measuring the length of time required for the system to empty a five-gallon bucket of water.
    • In order to quickly address any malfunctions, establish a maintenance agreement with a contractor qualified to service and repair pump-out facilities.
  • Do not allow waste to drain into receiving waters. Do not allow rinse water or residual waste in the hoses to drain into receiving waters. Any sewage residuals in hose after pumping should be emptied from hose by elevating hose to drain contents to pump, if necessary. Keep the pump running until it has been rinsed with clean water.
  • Educate Staff. If boaters are to use the pump-out system, the experience must be as pleasant and convenient as possible. As the manager of a marina with a pump-out, you are demonstrating your commitment to clean water. It is imperative that your staff exhibits this same level of care.

Provide Shoreside Restrooms

  • Provide clean, functional restrooms which are available 24 hours a day to encourage people not to use their heads while in port. In some states this is a mandatory requirement (Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio). See: State Laws page for your state. check box for Regional Best Management Practice
    • Note: There are many solutions to reduce cost and conserve resources in restrooms, such as solar lighting, low-flow fixtures and durable, recycled counter tops and stall panels. See: Marina Design and Maintenance Unit for more information on energy saving measures.
  • Post signs that note prohibition of discharging head waste in marina and direct people to use shoreside restrooms. check box for Regional Best Management Practice
  • Install a security system on restroom doors so people will feel safe, particularly late at night.
  • Provide air conditioning and heating in the restrooms.

Design and Maintain Septic Systems to Protect Water Quality and Public Health

If you have a septic system, be alert for signs of trouble, such as wet areas or standing water above the drain field, toilets that run slowly or back up, and odor. Septic failures can contaminate drinking water.

  • Regularly maintain your septic or private sewage treatment system. check box for Regional Best Management Practice
  • If replacing or updating your system, consider installing an advanced septic treatment system. Advanced treatment systems differ from conventional systems in a number of ways, the primary difference being that they further treat the wastewater before it is dispersed to the soil and environment.

The following tips will help you to avoid the health risks and nuisance associated with an overburdened system (Miller and Eubanks, 1992).

Manage what goes down drains

  • Post signs about what patrons can and cannot put into the system, e.g., signs  prohibiting the discharge of head waste; prohibiting waste dumping in toilets, sinks or storm drains; discouraging the discharge of graywater; and directing people to use shoreside restrooms and dishwashing areas. See Section 2: Services and Education for details.
  • Provide wastebaskets in each bathroom stall to encourage the proper disposal of trash.
  • Provide laundry facilities and encourage patrons to use minimal amounts of detergents and to use bleach-free, non-phosphorous detergents.
  • Provide dishwashing facilities and discourage use of garbage disposals on vessels. (Sink disposals increase the amount of solids entering the system, requiring more frequent pumping).
  • Promote the use of non-toxic drain cleaners and cleaning products, such as vinegar and baking soda or citrus-based materials that are not harmful to septic systems or the environment.
  • Properly dispose of any chemicals. See: Waste Management and Recycling Unit.

Protect your drainfield

  • Direct downspouts and runoff away from the septic field in order to avoid saturating the area with excess water. Also, for stormwater management reasons, do not direct the flow or runoff toward paved areas. Similarly, avoid excess irrigation above the drain field. See: Stormwater Management Unit.
  • Plant drainfield with grass only. Avoid tree and shrubs that will generate root systems that may clog the field. 
  • Do not drive or park on the septic field or infiltration area. This may compact the soil and damage the system.
  • Hire a licensed professional to pump the tank as necessary (typically 2-5 year intervals).
  • Know the location of your septic tank cover and keep the cover easily accessible.

 Use water efficiently

  • Conserve water and spread out water usage. This reduces the burden on the septic system. 
  • Encourage employees and patrons to use water efficiently. 

Provide Facilities for “Live-aboards”

Boaters who make their homes aboard vessels can pose a challenge. It is not reasonable to expect that they will regularly untie their boats in order to use a fixed pump-out facility. It is also unwise to assume that people living on their boats (live-aboards) will always use shoreside restrooms. Furthermore, even if your marina is located outside an NDZ, it is undesirable to allow residents to discharge their Type I or Type II systems. Your obligation as marina owner/manager is to provide a convenient sewage disposal system for live-aboards, while maintaining good water quality. Keep in mind that most live-aboards expect and are willing to pay a premium for extra service and more convenient slips.

Options for live-aboard sewage disposal:

  • Provide a portable pump-out station or require that live-aboards contract with a mobile pump-out service.
  • If possible, reserve slips closest to shoreside restrooms for live-aboards.
  • Stipulate in the lease agreement that boats may not discharge any sewage.
  • Offer to board vessels and demonstrate the proper way to secure the “Y” valve.
  • As a condition of the lease agreement, require that live-aboards place dye tablets in holding tanks to make any discharge clearly visible.
  • Install direct sewer hookups for live-aboards.

Next: Section 2: Services and Education