You may have seen large party boats on some Texas lakes and wondered just how those boats manage to deal with so many people. After all, a fact of life is that people have to use the restroom. When people use restrooms aboard those boats, how is the waste handled and what keeps it from contaminating the water where people swim and fish?
To protect water quality and keep people safe and healthy, the state’s Clean Water Certification Program, helps people avoid discharging the contents of marine septic systems into lakes and rivers as well as waterways near the coast. But it’s not just swimmers and boaters that have a stake. Water quality is an issue that affects everyone
Why it matters
Boat operators who have septic systems aboard are required to obtain a decal from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality certifying that their marine sanitation devices or pump-out stations are operating properly in order to protect the public and our waterways from accidental discharge of sewage, which can result in pollution and degraded water quality.
While boat owners self-certify during this process, it is important that they make sure their vessel’s sanitary systems are working properly to help protect our water. For marine sanitation devices, the initial fee for certification is $15, and renewals also cost $15. Replacement decals cost $2.
Any boat with a toilet installed on it must have a U.S. Coast Guard approved marine sanitation device designed to retain, treat and dispose of waste. Type I and Type II devices are typically installed on marine vessels and are not authorized for inland waters. Type III devices consist of holding tanks.
There are areas called "No Discharge Zones" in which the discharge of any waste (including treated) is not allowed from boats. All inland freshwater lakes and rivers are considered No Discharge Zones. Marine septic devices can be kept from releasing waste by closing the valve and using a padlock or wire-tie to prevent any automatic discharge, according to the TCEQ. Boat sewage can then be disposed of properly at a pump-out station. All houseboats must have a Type III marine sanitation device or have disabled their Type I or II device using one of the methods above.
It is important to comply with the laws because lakes and rivers are used as a source of drinking water as well as recreation. This is something lake rangers look for when performing boat safety inspections on BRA reservoirs. The certification for 2018-2019 is valid through Dec. 31, 2019.
The TCEQ notes that untreated – or improperly treated – human waste can introduce microorganisms into the water. These can cause a variety of diseases, including hepatitis A, giardia, cryptosporidium, typhoid and cholera.
In addition, waste material contains nitrogen and phosphorus compounds, which can result in algal blooms. These increases in algae concentrations can harm the ecosystem, resulting in fish kills.
What you can do, and penalties for breaking laws
To ensure compliance with laws to protect our waterways, TCEQ recommends that people use restrooms on shore whenever possible, that boat owners/operators establish regular maintenance schedules based on the marine sanitation device’s manufacturer’s recommendations, dispose of sewage properly at a pump-out station, pump out and rinse holding tanks regularly and properly maintain toilets aboard boats.
Violations of the Clean Water Certification Program are enforced under the Texas Water Code, with fines of up to $25,000 per day, or the Texas Parks and Wildlife Code, with fines of up to $500 per day.
All applications and payments must be made electronically at the TCEQ website. Those who cannot complete the process online must call the TCEQ at 512-239-2628 or send an email to CWCERT@tceq.texas.gov.
More information, including how to obtain Clean Water Certification permits, is available here.
The need to protect our waterways is not just limited to boat owners. Anyone can play a role in making sure rules are followed – which benefits everyone. If you see anyone violating wastewater disposal laws, you can contact the TCEQ at 1-888-777-3186.