A houseboat on Fontana Lake was dismantled and hauled off this month after the owner repeatedly failed to dispose of waste properly.
For more than a year the houseboat owner dodged rules against straight piping sewage into the lake. The owner also skirted rules that limit how long a houseboat can sit in the same spot on the lake if it isn’t in a harbor.
The houseboat owner was sent warning letters from the Swain County Health Department, which polices sewage disposal by houseboats on the lake. After certified letters went unreturned, a notice was posted on the front door of the owner’s house, said Linda White, director of the Swain County Health Department.
After still no response, the county attorney sent him a final warning telling him to remove his houseboat or face fines and even criminal charges for violating the county’s houseboat waste disposal ordinance.
The houseboat owner finally took notice — but instead of complying he tootled down the lake to the Graham County side, out of Swain’s jurisdiction.
Graham County also has an ordinance that prevents houseboats from dumping their sewage into the lake, but after six months of getting nowhere, Swain authorities were happy to let someone else try. Graham didn’t have much luck either, however.
Meanwhile, the houseboat owner was loitering too long in one spot. Houseboats have to either be tied up in a harbor or on the move — moving at least one nautical mile every two weeks. Tennessee Valley Authority flags boats that set up camp in one place on the open lake for too long. House boats outside a harbor aren’t supposed to be left unattended longer than 24 hours, either.
There are five private boat docks on the lake that will harbor houseboats in coves that branch off the main stem of the lake. Most of the 500 houseboats on the lake never budge from the boat dock where they lease harbor space. The owners use their houseboats as a home base on the water but use motorboats or pontoons to venture from the shoreline and play on the open lake.
The dock owners also handle houseboat sewage, using a fleet of pump boats to collect sewage from all the houseboats in their harbors and haul it to shore.
But this renegade houseboat owner simply idled around the lake.
“He refused to go to a harbor,” said David Monteith, head of the Fontana Lake Users Association and a Swain County commissioner. “He did not want to get into compliance and get into a harbor and sign a pumping contract.”
Ultimately, however, the lake itself dealt the houseboat a fatal blow. During a storm, it broke lose of its moorings and capsized.
“It was a navigation hazard,” said Darrell Cuthbertson with the Tennessee Valley Authority, which manages the lake. “Only two feet of one corner was sticking up from the water, and we were afraid someone was going to hit it so we drug it over to the bank.”
The closest shoreline happened to be National Park Service property. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park wasn’t exactly fond of a soggy, capsized houseboat on its lakeshore and asked the owner to claim his houseboat.
When he didn’t meet the deadline, Tennessee Valley Authority dismantled it and hauled off the scraps, Cuthbertson said.
Lake sewage rules
A local push to clean up Lake Fontana was set in motion about 10 years ago following a revelation that the bacteria level in the water was unsafe — five times above accepted fecal coliform counts.
All that sewage, not only from toilets but also “gray water” from showers and sinks, was polluting the lake.
Those who used the lake banded together under the Fontana Lake Users Association to address the issue. The group lobbied officials in Swain and Graham counties to pass ordinances regulating houseboat waste and secured more than $700,000 in grants to get a fleet of pump boats up and running.
Houseboats now collect their own sewage in tanks and have it pumped out and hauled ashore periodically by boat dock owners.
Houseboat owners must display a sticker on the outside of their boat showing they are in compliance with the law. To get a sticker, they have to provide a copy of their pumping contract with a boat dock owner.
Interestingly, houseboat owners go through the county property tax office to get their stickers since houseboat owners are supposed to pay property taxes on their boats anyway.
The sewage ordinance actually killed two birds with one stone: it cleaned up the lake and dramatically increased the number of houseboat owners paying taxes on their boats — much like your license plate renewal is tied to automobile inspection.
Monteith hopes this will be a lesson to any houseboat owner thinking of skirting the waste disposal laws on the lake.
“To me, it goes to show this is what could happen if you fail to get in compliance with this ordinance in Swain and Graham County. This is what could happen to anybody’s houseboat, it could be dismantled,” Monteith said.