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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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The expense and difficulty of building and maintaining a pier has increased demand for marina slips. © Robert Queen

August 2002

Clear the decks

Keep marinas shipshape.

Natasha Kassulke

The expense and difficulty of building and maintaining a pier has increased demand for marina slips.

© Robert Queen
Design and siting
Stormwater management
Boat maintenance and repair
Petroleum control
Waste containment and control

There are many benefits to becoming a cleaner marina: protecting and improving water quality; reducing waste disposal costs; attracting boaters who keep a tidy craft; meeting stormwater and other pollution control; and building a positive reputation.

The first step is to pinpoint potential problems and review ways to minimize them. Each marina will want to tailor a plan based on the number of slips, the types of boats moored, services provided, the surrounding habitat, and the amount of runoff it faces.

EPA's "National Management Measures Guidance to Control Nonpoint Source Pollution from Marinas and Recreational Boating," is a good starting place. It summarizes causes and consequences of nonpoint pollution.

The guidance recommends ways to handle mooring, storage, boat cleaning, boat maintenance, fueling, sewage, trash, stormwater runoff, shoreline stabilization and steps to educate boaters.

Design and siting

Ron Fassbender, retired DNR water specialist for northeastern Wisconsin, says a marina's impact on the environment begins long before the first boat is docked in a slip.

Marina designs and renovations affect the shoreland and aquatic environment.

"We are seeing increasing numbers of marinas because of fluctuating water levels in the Great Lakes and property owners are finding it difficult to obtain permits for docks and piers," Fassbender says. "The expense and difficulty of building and maintaining a pier has increased demand for marina slips. As more condos are built there are more boats and a need for more dock space."

Fassbender says the bulk of the marinas are expansions of existing facilities or new marinas moving into existing harbors. Rather than disturb pristine areas, new marinas are siting in developed waterfronts. Fassbender cites Sheboygan and Sturgeon Bay as two cities where marinas may play a role in waterfront redevelopment.

His suggestion? Site a marina where land is already developed or where a brownfield is ripe for reclamation.

Habitat assessment is critical to minimize consequences for water quality, fish, wildlife and plant habitat.

Assessments consider aquatic vegetation, soil analysis, wetlands, shellfish beds, endangered and threatened species, fish spawning and propagation areas, waterfowl nesting and staging sites, wildlife corridors, cultural and historical impacts, navigational safety and public access.

He also suggests locating a marina in an area where the water is deep enough to avoid much dredging. Dredging to open boating channels requires permits from the Army Corps of Engineers. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act (Clean Water Act) regulates discharges of dredged or fill materials into navigable waters.

"Dredging is expensive and finding a dumping ground for dredged spoils is getting harder," Fassbender says.

When dredging is needed, Fassbender says two practices are most commonly required – installing a silt screen around each project to contain turbidity, and restricting when dredging can be done. Dredging in Door County is not allowed between March 15 and July 1 to protect fish spawning areas.

Locating and installing shoreside structures such as boathouses and piers may lead to erosion or sediment build-up.

Riprap placement is of prime importance to control erosion and to protect amphibians, explains Joe Mills, an environmental planner for Coastal Planning and Design, Inc. in Green Bay.

"Rough, irregular surfaces allow species to migrate to different areas fairly easily as opposed to a strictly vertical wall," Mills says. "It is vitally important for a frog, for example, to be able to move freely from water to dry land."

Stormwater management

Stormwater is another consideration. Rain may sweep out soil, petroleum residue, litter and even pet waste at a marina.

Stormwater volume tends to increase as more impervious surfaces such as parking lots are built.

"Stormwater management plans should consider elevation heights, soil types, surface types (impervious and not), and ways to direct rainwater to an area that doesn't directly flush into a surface water," Mills says.

He cites the Sawyer Park Boat Launch in Sturgeon Bay, the new marina at Bailey's Harbor and the Neenah Waterfront Walk as examples of positive marina developments designed to manage stormwater.

Marinas should pave the minimum areas necessary. Alternatives to asphalt for parking and storage areas include crushed seashells and porous pavement. Grass strips and other plants slow stormwater flow, stabilize shoreline, provide flood protection and create a park-like appearance. Stormwater may be directed to a planted area, such as a rain garden, rather than to a sewer pipe or the lake.

It is also important to limit or eliminate using hazardous chemicals at marinas that could be washed from lawns. Use biological controls, hand-pull weeds or use nonchemical alternatives.

Boat maintenance and repair

Steve LaValley, a DNR hazardous waste specialist in Superior, says hull maintenance is a particular environmental concern at marinas. Cleaning, sanding and restoring boats produces paint chips and dust that can contain metals, which are toxic to marine life even in small concentrations.

New formulations of boat paints and careful application can greatly reduce pollution. Some marinas require boaters to do large maintenance projects on shore where vessels can be serviced with equipment that has pollution controls.

Boat repair shops are investing in closed-loop hull-blasting systems that reuse plastic pellets, dustless sanders, scrapers with vacuums to capture dust, and tarps to catch debris. High volume, low pressure (HVLP) paint equipment can reduce emissions and improve application.

Petroleum control

Marinas also can install equipment, train staff and make plans to minimize fuel spills and react quickly if spills happen by deploying booms and other sorbent materials.

Automatic shutoff nozzles on fuel pump hoses at fueling stations can prevent spills from overfilling tanks. Collars of absorbent material on gas nozzles can minimize drips and small spills. Fuel/air separators on fuel tank vents will further prevent overflows by allowing air to leave the tank, but prevent fuel from being discharged from vents if the tank is overfilled.

Waste containment and control

Marinas also can provide customers with a convenient and affordable way to dispose of sanitary waste.

In 1992 Congress passed the Clean Vessel Act to reduce pollution from sewage discharges and established a five-year grant program to fund pumpout stations. Congress has extended the grant program through 2003, providing $50 million for alternatives to dumping sewage overboard.

At some marinas, dock staff pump out tanks for customers. Other marinas have separate dumping stations for portable toilets or use a pumpout machine with special hose.

Most marinas provide convenient, sealed trash receptacles in adequate numbers. Monofilament fish line isn't routinely recycled, but it could be and shouldn't be neglected.

Boaters also use a lot of lead-acid batteries to start their engines and run accessories. These should be stored indoors or under a cover and on an impervious surface. Old batteries should be recycled.

Poorly managed fish waste can degrade, use dissolved oxygen, produce really foul odors and create water quality problems. To mitigate this problem, a marina can offer fish cleaning areas with running water to collect fish wastes for composting, grinding or disposal.

Extra precautions are necessary for storing, handling and disposing of hazardous liquids such as solvents, oil and antifreezes. Oil filters should be drained before disposal. Some marinas use oil filter compactors, which although more costly, recover twice as much oil as gravity draining.


Education is the best tool to prevent pollution. Marinas can share information with staff and customers through workshops, newsletters, notices in monthly bills, lots of signs, and by visiting boaters at their slips or in the customer lounge.

Natasha Kassulke is Associate Editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.