About once a week, Pillar Point Harbor fuel dock manager Rolando Lopez tells a frustrated vessel owner to head up to the harbormaster's office for help with the waste pump-out station. The San Mateo County Harbor District machinery acts like a vacuum to pump sewage from boats, however it is breaking down with increasing regularity.
Now harbor managers plan to replace the eight-year-old pump-out station.
Harbor commissioners recently voted to apply for a Clean Vessel Act grant through the California Department of Boating and Waterways and plan to use the money to replace the harbor's pump-out station. The grant requires a 25 percent local match, which the harbor district would cover.
While state government grants would pay for $17,440 of the roughly $23,000 project, some berth-paying harbor tenants are questioning who should be paying for the service.
"It should be supplied by our harbor (district) because of our (high) berth rates," said Mike McHenry, a commercial fisherman who has pumped out his vessel's 100-gallon, self-contained tank monthly at the fuel station for the past 26 years. He says the harbor district should be able to fix the pump station with tenant fees. While grant money is a plus for the district, McHenry notes that those are funds ultimately coming out of the taxpayer's pocket. McHenry is one of a growing contingent of local fishermen concerned over increased tenant fees at the harbor in recent years.
There are currently 321 vessels docked at the harbor, according to harbor district General Manager Peter Grenell. Lopez estimates the pump-out station at the end of the dock is only used about once per day during the winter. In the summer months, when more recreational boats come through coastal waters, that number goes up to about five times a day. He says the vast majority of boats that use the pump-out station are sport and recreational fishers.
The harbor provides a pump-out facility for boats, and harbor ordinances clearly indicate that dumping sewage into the harbor is not allowed. It's unclear where commercial fishermen are unloading their sewage tanks if not in the provided pump-out facilities. While they are legally permitted to release sewage three miles out from the coast, some say they may be doing so within the harbor.
Over the years, when the pump station hasn't worked, McHenry has traveled up to San Francisco to unload his sewage tank. The commercial fisherman points to a mobile pump-out system implemented at the Berkeley Marina. Known at the docks as a "honeysucker," that 20-foot boat goes to vessels that need to be pumped out. In addition to the mobile service, Berkeley Marina has three pump-out stations. Each slip holder gets one free pump-out per month, something Harbormaster Ann Hardinger said is a service to the marina's slip holders and an attempt to keep their harbor waters clean.
In January, the San Mateo County Harbor Distirct began a berth-by-berth vessel inspection effort to ensure compliance and, when necessary, enforce the rules. The effort is still underway, Grenell said. After about 150 inspections - or about half of the boats berthed at the harbor - officials have found five infractions. Grenell said they are terminating berth agreements with those boat owners. A few other boats required work to bring them into compliance.
Additionally, the district is working to strengthen its ordinance so it can improve its enforcement capability.