The first question that needs answering is who might be dumping sewage into Morro Bay. The more complicated question involves how to stop that dumping from happening.
The heart of the issue is the city’s residents who live aboard boats—dubbed “liveaboards”—moored in the bay.
Michael Roland—who also goes by the nickname “Bear”—was one of about a half-dozen liveaboards who criticized city officials at the Morro Bay Harbor Advisory Board’s Oct. 2 meeting for their handling of the issue.
“I don’t have a problem with you guys—I really don’t,” Roland said, motioning to Harbor Director Eric Endersby. “I don’t want to lose my home.”
On the agenda that night was the culmination of several previous meetings aimed at deciding how to inspect liveaboard boats, under what criteria, and by whom. The Harbor Advisory Board members ultimately decided not to recommend altering the existing ordinance that guides how the city inspects liveaboards (the board is an advisory body to the Morro Bay City Council). Yet the latest meeting revealed myriad complex issues that harbor officials have yet to tackle.
In a phone interview with New Times, Harbor Patrol Supervisor Becka Kelly was quick to stress that the city isn’t seeking to place blame for pollution on liveaboard residents. However, she said, the city has had issues of sewage (and sometimes mechanical fluids) pollution.
A Morro Bay National Estuary Program “State of the Bay” report released in April found overall that the protected waters off Morro Bay were in good condition, but there were some areas that tested positive for E. coli, an indicator for pollutants. Two sites on the northwestern end of Baywood Los Osos resulted in “fair” tests for bacteria; the remaining six tests resulted in “good” or “very good.”
In past years, surrounding oyster farms have been shut down when bacteria levels were too high. According to the most recent report, those levels currently remain below the threshold that would prohibit harvesting. Bacteria levels spiked most significantly in 2010 and 2011, according to the report, and 2012 levels were nearly identical to those in 2009.
The city remains under a mandate from the State Water Quality Control Board to reduce pollutants in the harbor.
It’s difficult to pinpoint any one source of pollution, Endersby told New Times. An increased population of sea otters and sea lions could be a contributing factor, as can pigeons, as well as watersheds that feed into the harbor. Another potential source: people dumping sewage from their boats directly into the water.
Liveaboard vessels are unique among other types of boats in Morro Bay. Residents on the water are considered caretakers and part of the city’s security system. They’re often the first to notice a boat or person in trouble, for example. It’s this quality that grants them the privilege to live on the waterway, which is owned by the state—but it’s also the reason for increased scrutiny compared to other vessels.
Liveaboard residents must obtain a permit after passing inspection every two years to ensure that the boat functions adequately and is housed with one of three approved types of on-board toilets, or Marine Sanitation Devices (MSDs).
Harbor Department officials previously handled all such inspections, but the city later allowed private marine surveyors to inspect liveaboards.
Drew Jacobson is currently the only private surveyor in the city. He told New Times that he inspects roughly 20 of about 35 liveaboard vessels, charging anywhere from nothing to $20 for his services (city inspections have a set fee of $69).
But in reviewing the liveaboard ordinance, Harbor Advisory Board officials were also considering changes to what qualifies someone as a marine surveyor, a title that can be acquired with little to no accreditation.
Jacobson has inspected liveaboards since 2006, he said. When city officials were considering changing the qualifications of a marine surveyor, Jacobson protested, saying it’s not the liveaboards that are causing problems. He pointed instead at other boats that aren’t subject to the same inspections.
“There’s 100 boats on this bay that are discharging,” he said at the Oct. 2 meeting. In other words, he believes 100 of the approximately 470 boats in the harbor are directly dumping sewage.
“They’re out there, and the Harbor Department refuses to take any action on it,” he added.
Speaking with New Times, Jacobson said he gets along with the Harbor Advisory Board members and Endersby, but said liveaboards were being targeted while other boat owners were dumping into the water without consequence.
He proposed creating an ad hoc subcommittee that would discuss ways to further regulate other boats.
Endersby acknowledged that other boat owners are illegally discharging waste into the harbor, but he believes Jacobson overestimated the number.
But his hands are effectively tied. Without probable cause, department officials can’t inspect an on-board sanitation system.
“It’s darn near impossible to catch anybody in the act,” Endersby said.
Harbor Advisory Board members on Oct. 2 voted to leave the city’s requirements for a marine surveyor as is. They further asked that the ordinance be changed so that a liveaboard vessel only be operable in Morro Bay, and not required to be seaworthy on the Pacific Ocean, which liveaboard residents said was an unnecessary standard.
And Endersby said he would consult with the city’s attorney to see if there’s any room for the department to inspect other types of boats.
At the close of the Oct. 2 meeting, Jacobson commented, “It’s unfortunate this was brought up in the first place; it’s sort of nonsense.”
Senior Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at [email protected].