Environmental Stewardship in the Harbor

Elk Rapids Harbor photo by Kristy Geldersma

Nikki Hayes, who grew up in Elk Rapids, Michigan, is a FLOW intern this fall. Currently a junior at Loyola University Chicago (LUC), she has spent her life close to the Great Lakes.

Growing up in Elk Rapids, I was fortunate to have a summer job throughout high school working as a dock attendant at the Edward C. Grace Memorial Harbor. I got to see both the good and the bad of human behavior in environmental stewardship.

While working at the harbor, I noticed litter-like napkins, plastic bags and cups flowing from the shorelines near the fueling docks along with pollution from one of the highly populated beaches. As a dock attendant, I was assigned to clean the public restrooms at the Veterans Memorial Beach and the public restroom on Cedar Street.

The beach is used intensively by tourists and locals during the summer. While cleaning the bathrooms I noticed plumbing and sewage issues. Diapers and feminine care products, meant to go in the trash, were being flushed down toilets. This would often clog toilets. Signs were displayed inside and outside of the bathroom reminding beachgoers to properly dispose of materials that would be harmful to flush. This seemed to work, as I saw less and less non-flushable material improperly discarded.

I reached out to the current Harbor Master, Mike Singleton, to learn how pollution around the harbor is impacting operations.

Hayes: How are high water levels affecting business and other operations at the harbor?

Singleton: The high water levels have affected our infrastructure more this year than in any other since 1986. Our primary focus is on our electrical power supply in the junction boxes located at or below the current high water line. The junction boxes house the wires that come from the transformers and provide electrical power to our boat docks. Fortunately, when I arrived here 3 years ago, I worked with a marine electrician who ordered all new rubber gasket material for the interior lining of the boxes, which helps prevent the intrusion of water and prevent possible leakage of electricity back into the water. Electric Shock Drowning is a hot word in the marine industry right now. Unfortunately, some people who have been exposed to this stray electrical current have drowned. This is clearly a very serious issue that must be monitored on a daily basis here and with the high water so close to our electrical housing components there is potential for this to occur.

The electrical and cable conduit below the docks, the fresh water pipes (potable water), and the adjusted height of the boater docks would be next. The level of the docks was the next order of business for us. It is dangerous for boaters boarding and departing their boats with uneven or raised leveled docks. Having the appropriate height adjusted helps the boaters safely maneuver on and off boats. Having the docks raised also gives us the advantage of having those cables and conduit lines above the high water and eventual ice formation in the winter.

Hayes: What are the main pollution problems you experience at the harbor?

Singleton: The main pollution problem here at our harbor would be the discharge of boaters’ engine room bilge pumps directly into the water. As you know, we are a certified clean marina and that means we are very strict following the guidelines of keeping the water clean and free of pollutants. Boats have multiple bilge pumps located throughout many compartments. The engine compartment is the most common source of discharging pollutants into our waters. Nearly every vessel has some oil, water, hydraulic fluid, diesel/gas, and solvents in the engine compartment bilge. When the fluid level gets too high the bilge pump engages and will discharge the pollutants overboard into the lake. We must take action immediately when this happens to prevent the spread of these contaminants. We have oil absorbent mats that float along with a large absorbent boom to surround the area of contamination and contain. Once the spill is contained and the source of discharge has been secured, we have a hazardous material team come in to remove and dispose of the material safely.

Hayes: Do boaters wash the bottom of their boats to remove invasive species?

Singleton: Simply put, no, they do not. However, this season I had a company come in twice and offer free bottom cleaning services for boats hauling out at our launch ramp. This company provided literature as well as onsite education for the boaters. Overall, I believe it was a success that people were made aware of the invasive species problem we are having on the Great Lakes. We all need to do our part to continue to keep the Lakes as clean as possible.

Hayes: How can people help and reduce their impact?

Singleton: Boat owners and boat operators must conduct regular inspections of their boats ensuring that excessive oily wastes are cleaned up and disposed of properly before and after using their boats. Boaters should also educate themselves and be very aware of how discharge systems work onboard their vessels. Sewage systems can very easily be overlooked as well and can be directly discharged into the water with a simple turn of a valve or push of a button.

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