Lake Conroe is a popular lake for boating, fishing, camping and just relaxing. Eric Howard, a Game Warden of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department assigned to Montgomery County, calls the lake “Houston’s Playground” because it is located just an hour’s drive north of the city.
The popularity of Lake Conroe has created a need for the Montgomery County Marine Division, a law enforcement unit made up of two full-time deputy sheriffs. The sole responsibility of the Marine Division is the preservation of safety on the lake.
Officers Cullen Thomas and Jim Ford enforce the Texas Water Safety Act and the Rules and Regulations of the Lake Conroe Reservoir as mandated by the San Jacinto River Authority in the performance of this duty.
The Precinct 1 Constable’s Office also has a full-time officer assigned to the lake, Deputy Constable Greg Gibson, who works closely with Thomas and Ford.
The Marine Division spends a majority of their time on the south end of Lake Conroe. This is where the heavier boating traffic and boating novices are found on the lake. Thomas and Ford generally patrol as far north as the Walker County line, which crosses the lake just south of State Highway 1375.
The north end of the lake, Ford explains, is a minefield of stumps and a boater really has to know where he’s going. Mostly fishermen are attracted to the north end of Lake Conroe and, Ford adds, “we don’t have much of a problem with fishermen as a whole”.
In the enforcement of the Texas Water Safety Act, the deputy sheriff’s are very strict. Thomas explains that every boater is required by state law to know these regulations and the Marine Division will not hesitate to write a citation for a violation of this Act. A copy of the Texas Water Safety can be picked up at the Montgomery County Commissioner’s Office or at some marinas on Lake Conroe.
In addition to the state laws on boating, a boater on Lake Conroe should be familiar with the local rules and regulations of the lake. The Marine Division wants these rules adhered to, but they are more lenient when it comes to these regulations.
Several of the regulations deal with personal watercraft, including jet skis, water bikes and aqua planes. “No person shall operate …a personal watercraft…at a greater than ‘No Wake’ speed, within 50 feet of another vessel, personal watercraft or water skier.” Another regulation makes it unlawful for a person to operate any water vessel at a speed greater than ‘No Wake’ speed within 100 feet of a boat dock or an inlet being used for swimming. Banana Bay has been nicknamed “torpedo alley” by the sheriffs of Montgomery County because, as Deputy Sheriff Cullen Thomas contends, personal watercraft disturbances are very common there.
Another unique aspect of the local Lake Conroe regulations is the “Skier Down Flag Rule”. This rule requires a rear observer to be in the ski boat “who must hold up an orange flag…high enough to alert other traffic when the skier is in the water and no longer being towed.” Provisions are made in this rule so that operators without a separate observer may raise the necessary flag. Deputy Sheriff Thomas feels that this rule prevents many skiers from becoming victims of boating accidents and “mutilated in a boat’s propellers”.
The Texas Water Safety Act provides strict guidelines pertaining to the Boating While Intoxicated law. The Marine Division is quick to point out that Banana Bay is where most of these citations are written. The penalties for violation of the BWI law range from a fine of $100 to a sentence of five years in prison.
In some areas of the country, according to Deputy Sheriff Ford, peace officers are equipped with “portable intoxilizers” that give the officer at least a good idea of how much the boater has had to drink. Montgomery County is not equipped with this new technology, so it becomes necessary to keep the suspected boater in custody on land for fifteen minutes before the effect of “sea legs” is sure to have worn off and a sobriety test can be given. Deputy Sheriff Jim Ford elucidates, “if you want to enforce BWI, you have to ignore everything else. It’s something you really have to target.”
Montgomery County is also favored with “a cracker-jack dive team” boasts Ford. The team is made up of a group of volunteers who leave their various jobs when they are needed on Lake Conroe. They have also been called to Walker County and Lake Somerville for their expertise. The group includes some reserve peace officers and they are very talented and well known for their diving skill, according to Officer Ford. The divers provide their own equipment and transportation and Montgomery County is very proud and lucky to have them.
The Marine Division was preparing for the Labor Day weekend when I spoke with them. Labor Day, says Officer Thomas, is less busy than the July Fourth and Memorial Day weekends. Though still busier than other weekends of the summer, the impending hunting season diverts interest away from the lake and “lightens the load on the lake”. Labor Day does attract its share of out-of-towners, however, just like every big weekend. On big weekends, the Marine Division spends a great deal of time “getting out-of-towners in compliance with local regulations”.
The Marine Division is an important part of law enforcement on Lake Conroe. Officers Thomas and Ford seem very fair and interested in keeping the lake a safe lake for everyone. This lake lover feels comfortable in knowing the Marine Division is on Lake Conroe. – Lake Mohave
– Lake Mohave