The usual springtime elephant on the island

In this column, I share stories from the Isles of Shoals and beyond. Some six miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Piscataqua River, this amazing place is host to a variety of interesting vessels, wildlife and people – a rest stop on the East Coast maritime highway.

I was down at the wharf when it happened. I went down as I do almost daily in the winter to check the lines and bilges and batteries. A raw northeast wind was riling the river to a decent chop and driving big wet flakes against my face.

Outside it was sure to be rough – a very good day to stay at the dock. It wasn’t much nicer in the damp cabin. But out of the wind the snow muffled down in a quiet hush, and it felt good to be on the boat again. I took the chance to straighten things up and take a little inventory.

After a while, even with my head buried in the engine box, I noticed that the sound of the storm outside was different. The sharp sound of ice pellets on the overhead announced a rise in temperature. The snow was changing over to sleet. As the afternoon progressed, the wind veered to the southeast, and the sleet gradually gave over to a steady rain. A welcome stream flushed the decks of accumulated winter grit. By evening, there was even some thunder in the distance, and tentative flashes of lightning played against the crumbling gray snow banks flanking the parking lot. The weather had finally fallen in line with the calendar. Spring had planted a firm stake on the coast at last.

On the coming Monday the island caretakers would remove (as the old-timers called a migration back to the mainland), and the summer crew would begin their seasonal occupation. For the first few weeks, the influx would be little more than a trickle, but by mid-May there would be over forty souls in residence, and, by the end of June, more than 400.

As usual, there are lots of spring projects. The caretakers’ winter-damage list is long. Repairs are required to roofs and windows. An old cottage will get a facelift. Bathrooms will be renovated. Paths and drainage will be improved.

We have a strong group of veteran islanders for the work this year. We’ll feed them well, and get the systems up and running as soon as we can to make them comfortable. But in springtime at the Isles of Shoals, there is often an elephant in the room. The elephant’s name is wastewater.

At the west end of Star Island, adjacent to the sewer discharge area, is the only stretch of natural sand beach on the Island. This is an inviting piece of shore where the water has the clarity and color of the Bahamas. Faded red letters painted on the rocks nearby read “No Swimming.” As late as 30 years ago we discharged untreated wastewater directly into the ocean in this area. This was common practice all along the coast. Islanders still know the place as the “No Swim Beach.” I find the spot irresistible.

For the past 25 years we have treated wastewater under state and federal permits, and discharged it in this same area. Discharge amounts are often as high as 10,000 gallons per day in the summer. But our biological treatment process takes a long time to establish and stabilize, and in the early months of the season, our processing and discharge capacities are severely restricted – as are flushing, washing and showers.

When I was boy on the Massachusetts shore, the aptly named “Great Haste” discharge pipe belched raw sewage from Essex County directly into Salem Bay in sight of fishermen and swimmers. Boston Harbor was among the most polluted waterways in the country. A fall into many of our major rivers required hospitalization and immunization. Rusty iron discharge lines ran from waterfront homes and coastal estates to the low-tide line. While holding tanks were eventually required on boats, few were routinely used.

Even today, a boat on the ebbing Piscataqua River floats, in part, in municipal wastewater that has received only the most basic treatment (the overdue rebuild of the Portsmouth sewer plant is now underway). A few years ago, a late April flood overwhelmed a plant on the Merrimack River, just below the White Mountains, releasing untreated waste and millions of small plastic disks (part of the plant’s treatment process) into the River. Great numbers of these disks washed up on Shoals beaches within just a few days. (They can still be found from time to time, evidence, it seems, of just how connected we are through our waterways.)

Direct ocean discharge from vessels is still allowed outside of the three-mile limit. Enforcement of no discharge zones is limited to the occasional inspection requiring the boat’s discharge valve to be secured in a closed position (and we all know that violations of this rule abound). But I have spent all the time I need to spend managing Y-valves and holding tanks on our boats, and studying charts to determine our closest proximity to the three-mile line.

The good news is that we have many options today for wastewater management on boats. Pump-out stations are ever more available along the waterfront. In New Hampshire, the state pump-out boat will even come to you (603-670-5130). Incinerating units can be very effective on boats with lots of power, and small-scale treatment plants are available for larger yachts and ships. A number of composting toilets are produced for marine use that reduce odors, and are effective for routine use all season with little maintenance. I have a friend who happily used one while cruising the Bahamas for nearly a year.

We have come a long way since the venerable yacht designer L. Francis Herreshoff declared the cedar bucket to be the most sensible solution to this timeless nautical problem (smells good, never gets clogged, can’t sink your boat). Yachtsmen and marine professionals have a range of good choices today for effective treatment and/or disposal. All that is left is for us to accept the responsibility.

At Star Island, we operate under an acute awareness of the need to protect the marine environment and a constant scarcity of critical resources. We work to improve our systems under the principle that waste is better understood as a resource that is looking for a new home. Reflective of the world as a whole, water is one of our most critical needs. While our current system legally and safely solves the wastewater disposal problem, the most sustainable solution would be to replace disposal with recycling.

And so we are collaborating with the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, the town of Rye, and two local engineering firms in search of a comprehensive wastewater solution that can effectively treat and recycle our wastewater for appropriate re-use. The perfect solution would also reduce use of the chemicals and energy required for treatment, and improve off-season operation.

Energy-saving biological processes already exist which can produce treated water that is suitable for re-use in irrigation and toilet flushing. Flexible cycle timing may allow more of the process to be powered by our solar electric system (by running more during the day, when solar power is plentiful), further reducing our use of fossil fuels.

Our research suggests that we have the opportunity to dramatically reduce, and possibly even eliminate, our ocean discharge. It could mean the end of wastewater as we know it, and opens the door to swimming at the beguiling “No Swim Beach.”

In an age of increasingly hot summers, stressed ocean environments, mounting pressure on fresh water supplies, growing energy demand, and burgeoning populations, creative solutions to water conservation are being sought across the globe. Even in conservative New England, regulators are beginning to consider and approve innovative approaches that would have been impossible just a few years ago. There is nothing like the scarcity of resources, which remote places like islands experience as a matter of course, to encourage innovation.

It is our hope that our work on this tiny island can have an impact on water management that extends far beyond its rugged shores. Who would have guessed that wastewater management could be so exciting?

Jack is a USCG 100-ton master and the facilities director at Star Island at the Isles of Shoals, where Aloft lives most of the summer. Formerly island manager, Jack will focus on running freight boats and tours during the summer season and managing the waterfront. “Lots more fun,” he says.

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