You’ve probably noticed an abandoned refrigerator, piles of discarded tires or a pile of trash abandoned off the road in a drainage ditch. But did you know that rubbish is more than an eyesore? It’s also a threat to our water quality.

Keeping our rivers, lakes and streams as clean as possible is important to our health and quality of life, so preventing illegal dumping is an issue that is important to everyone. Illegal dumping can harm water resources either when refuse is dumped directly into water or on land that leads to pollution via runoff.

Why is preventing illegal dumping so important to protecting water? “When the water in our rivers, lakes, and oceans becomes polluted; it can endanger wildlife, make our drinking water unsafe, and threaten the waters where we swim and fish,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Prevention of pollution caused by illegal dumping – and enforcing laws to protect our environment – are key.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is the state regulatory agency charged with protecting our water quality. The TCEQ often works with local police to enforce regulations intended to protect the environment.

The TCEQ reports that grant-funded programs for the 2014-2015 fiscal year resulted in 2,237 illegal dumpers being identified and almost $180,000 in fines being collected.

According to the Texas Health and Safety Code (Section 365.012): “A person commits an offense if the person disposes or allows the disposal of litter or other solid waste at a place that is not an approved solid waste site, including a place on or within 300 feet of a public highway, or a right-of-way, on other public or private property, or into inland or coastal water of the state.”

Depending on the amount of material dumped, when the crime is a misdemeanor a person faces a fine of up to $500 and 30 days confinement in jail. For repeat offenders in extreme cases, those illegally dumping can be forced to forfeit the vehicle used in the offense (under Chapter 59 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure).

When water pollution is detected by Texas peace officers, Section 7.145 of the Texas Water Code states that when the discharge is done intentionally, individuals can be charged with a felony and face fines of $1,000 to $100,000, as well a prison time of up to five years. For crimes committed by multiple people, the fine ranges from $1,000 to $250,000. For subsequent convictions, the penalties can be doubled.

Unauthorized discharges of a lesser nature (according to TWC Section 7.147) can still command individual fines of $1,000 to $50,000 and up to one year in jail. For crimes committed by multiple people, the fines can range from $1,000 to $100,000. Subsequent offenses also mean a doubling of potential maximum penalties.

The law also indicates that each day of a continuing violation is considered a separate violation.

Illegal dumping is a problem that not only harms the environment, it costs taxpayers in terms of cleanup. The City of Austin alone says it spends at least $250,000 to clean up rubbish created by illegal dumping. Although the frequency of illegal dumping varies depending on location, it is a statewide problem. In 2014, the Texas Department of Transportation estimated at least $40 million statewide is spent each year cleaning up litter, including that caused by illegal dumping.

The definition of illegal dumping may be broader than some people realize. Bell County in Central Texas notes on its website that pouring trash or liquid waste down storm drains can also be classified as illegal dumping. Items put into storm drains eventually end up in streams, lakes or rivers.

Even when trash is dumped away from bodies of water, it can still be a threat to the ecosystem. The EPA notes that runoff from contaminated soil can end up making its way to surface water. Common contaminants that can impair our water include motor oil, pesticides, paint, mothballs, flea collars, household cleaners and medicines.

Although properly disposing of unwanted items may be a little more time consuming and involve some expense, it is far better than illegally dumping items which can hurt water quality, endanger the environment and pose health hazards.

If you see someone dumping things into the river or a stream or lake, do not approach them. Instead, contact the TCEQ environmental hotline at 1-888-777-3186 or call a local law enforcement agency to report the problem.

The Texas Water Code and a list of possible penalties and criminal and civil court action can be found here. The Texas Illegal Dumping Resource Center lists potential penalties and who enforces different regulations, more information can be found here