Hygiene on Lake Coeur d’Alene has come a long way since the lake’s floating restrooms were torched one Fourth of July years ago.
The restrooms were an enclosed place to sit over the water, as if the lake were just a giant toilet bowl.
In the 1970s, it became illegal to dump human waste in the lake, and now nearly every marina has a pumpout station for boats’ bathrooms.
Still, some lake residents and boaters suspect that not everyone is treating the lake with enough respect.
“You see sewage sometimes in the water and you smell it,” said Gregg Sowder, a lakefront property owner. “I’ve seen it on my shoreline sometimes.”
Despite Sowder’s suspicions, no one ever seems to get caught in the act of dumping sewage overboard.
“It’s really hard to detect people doing it,” said Andy Boyle, a Kootenai County sheriff’s marine deputy. “They could go out in the middle of the lake and turn on their bilge pump and pump whatever’s in there out. I’m sure it happens, I’m just not sure how much.”
The marine deputies are the only enforcement available to prevent the unsanitary practice, which is a source of frustration to the Panhandle Health District.
The district used to check to make sure houseboats have holding tanks. The district does require all new marinas to have pump-out stations.
“The problem is the Panhandle Health District has half the water in the state, and we don’t even own a boat,” said Ken Lustig, director of environmental health.
The district is unlikely to get a new boat or start a monitoring program to catch violators in the near future.
Because of financial concerns, the health agency last year stopped conducting swim beach surveys, which measured the level of organic contamination at area beaches.
Some beaches tend to get elevated levels of human waste from toddlers entering the water with dirty diapers or people relieving their bladders in the swimming area.
“People say, ‘Aw, it’s the lake, it’s not going to hurt it,”’ Lustig said. Despite the need, he said, “We’ll not do anything with float houses or sewage on boats, unless it’s an obvious issue.”
Many boaters and residents believe the sewage problem is on the decline because of state law, health district regulations and greater awareness.
“You see dead animals and dead plants out there,” said Bruce Mountjoy of Spokane, who took advantage of Friday’s windy weather to go sailing with his son. “Human waste is a drop in the bucket compared to the natural amount of stuff in this lake.”
Most boaters, he said, are responsible and regularly use the pump-out stations or visit restrooms on shore.
County pump-out stations are free, but ones owned and operated by marinas are not. For instance, the Yacht Club charges $10 to use its pump-out station.
“It’s just not a problem,” Mountjoy insisted.
Rod Siegfried disagrees.
Siegfried has owned a house on the lake between Carlin Bay and Powderhorn Bay for 40 years. In recent years, he’s noticed a proliferation of big cruiser boats.
“You can see when they go cruising down the lake, you’ll see a streak behind them about a hundred yards long,” he said. “You see this brown, murky, bubbly water. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know what it is.”
Large boats with toilets are supposed to have holding tanks. If they have a discharge outlet, they’re supposed to be sealed when on the lakes.
But no one checks to make sure they’re sealed, unless the sheriff’s department gets a specific complaint.
Anyone who sees a boater polluting the lake should write down the boat’s hull number and report it to the sheriff’s department, advised Merlin Thykeson, manager of Olympic Boat Centers in Spokane - a dealer of large boats.
“I don’t see it as a problem,” Thykeson said. “Most of the customers we talk to, if they saw someone do that, they’d wring their neck.”
About four years ago, local agencies pondered raising boater registration fees to finance an education program directed at getting boaters to use pump-out stations.
The state Parks and Recreation Department’s boating program stepped in and agreed to take on the task. The agency is developing brochures, radio advertisements and a billboard campaign under a $24,000 federal grant.
By next summer, said Mark Brandt, state boating program supervisor, drivers between Spokane and Coeur d’Alene will be reminded not to throw their waste, bodily or otherwise, overboard.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: PUMPING NOT DUMPING Most marinas have pump-out stations. The county operates several around the lake free of charge. Yellow-painted county pump-out stations on Lake Coeur d’Alene are at: Third Street docks; Northwest Resorts Marina at 11th Street; Carlin Bay docks; Rockford Bay docks; Gateway Marina in Harrison; Conkling Park Marina.