The bottom of the lake.
It should go without saying, yet every year the Brazos River Authority pulls abandoned watercraft out from beneath the water of its three water supply reservoirs.
Not only is dumping a boat in the lakes a felony, but the act can cause serious harm to aquatic life and habitat, as well as the water supply Texans depend upon. Scuttled watercraft can also become navigational hazards to unsuspecting boats, jet skis or others. Keeping our lakes and the Brazos River as clean as possible is essential to our health and quality of life. Dumping anything into a river, lake or stream, even organic materials like leaves and animal waste, can cause problems such as algae blooms or cause bacteria to multiply in the water.
So why do people intentionally sink a boat in a lake they love?
Lake Granbury lake rangers have pulled four abandoned boats out of the reservoir in the last three months, said John Riley, Lake Granbury lake ranger sergeant. Those recoveries included two small bass boats, a 17-foot watercraft, and a 27-foot cabin cruiser that had all been dumped.
Sometimes a lake ranger stumbles upon a submerged watercraft, while other times, an individual sees it and calls the lake office to report the situation.
When that happens, BRA lake rangers first look to identify the boat’s owner - often through boat registration - and then contacts that individual. If the owner can be identified, lake rangers coordinate with the owner to have the watercraft removed, whether that includes the owner hiring a salvage company or working with insurance agents.
And since people know it’s wrong to abandon or dump a boat into the lake, some owners will attempt to remove any identification numbers from the watercraft. But lake rangers don’t just throw their hands up and walk away. That’s when an investigation begins. Lake Rangers, for instance, have located owners through tracing sales of boats through internet sites and other methods to find the last person that purchased the boat, even if it’s not registered.
“It is a lot harder to sink a boat than you’d think as most of the time boats are only partially submerged or close to the surface,” Riley said.
If the watercraft does sink below the surface, Lake Rangers can use Side Scan Sonar to identify its location on the lake bottom. Lake Rangers then will have the boat removed so it doesn’t cause any further environmental harm to the reservoir or its water quality.
Once the owner is identified, the penalty is severe.
If someone intentionally disposes of a boat into a public waterway, it is considered Illegal Dumping under Texas Health and Safety Code Sec. 365.012. The penalty is a state jail felony in most cases if the weight is 1,000 pounds or more. There are currently active investigations and pending cases regarding individuals dumping boats at Lake Granbury.
Riley said it is an environmental nightmare having boats left in the lake as they can leak oil and gas into the water, negatively impacting the fish and other wildlife. Abandoned boats can also become a navigational hazard endangering other boaters on the lake.
Every vessel has an end of life, and watercraft owners will have to decide how best to discard it. Whether plans are to sell or properly dispose of the vessel, the owner is responsible for removing the craft from the waters of the state.
Discovery of abandoned and submerged boats doesn’t often occur at Possum Kingdom Lake, said PK Lake Ranger, Justin Bullock. Officers provide immediate response to access the scene, injured persons, public safety and environmental hazards, he said.
Most marinas require the boat owner to have insurance before they rent them a slip, Bullock said. While he’s not familiar with all the different insurance policies, Bullock said, it’s been his experience that insurance typically pays for the cleanup and the recovery of the vessel.
The swifter the removal of the vessel from the reservoir, the better.
Depending on the watercraft, even if the motor is pulled from the boat, there will still be oil that can leak into the water supply from the abandoned vessel, Riley said.
But not all the watercraft that are illegally sunk or abandoned are bigger cruisers.
“People love paddle boats until they realize how much work it takes to go half mile an hour in the wind,” Riley said. “Then they let the paddle boat sit there until it falls apart, then they push those things off, so they don’t have to mess with it.”
The Texas General Land Office and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department have, over the past few years, partnered with cities and counties in the lower Brazos River basin and along the Gulf Coast to host the Vessel Turn-In Program, which allows people to safely and legally dispose of unwanted or inoperable boats for free. The program, which began in earnest in 2015, was in response to the scores of abandoned and derelict boats that have littered Texas waters, leaking poisonous fluids into rivers, reservoirs and backwaters, according to this Houston Chronicle article.
Although properly disposing of unwanted items may be time-consuming and involve some expense, it is far better than illegally dumping and hurting our water quality, endangering the environment and creating health hazards.