The whole mess began with a fight that had nothing to do with recreational boats.
A couple of years ago, an environmental group sued the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The group argued that ships could not be dumping ballast water in the U.S. without the same kind of permit a municipal waste water plant would need.
They wanted to stop invasive species from sneaking into U.S. waters, and they argued - successfully, as it turns out - that the EPA could not give ships a free pass on dumping water, as had been done for some 30 years.
In 2006, a federal court ruled that indeed, ships need the permits, but the ruling is broad.
"The unfortunate result of that court case is that the court mandated that the federal EPA develop a permit system for every operational discharge from every vessel," said Margaret Podlich, a lobbyist for the Boat Owners Association of the United States.
According to the court, even rainwater running off a boat is considered a discharge and requires a permit. Permits could be costly and burdensome, but so far the cost and requirements of this one haven't been set.
The unfortunate result of that court case is that the court mandated that the federal EPA develop a permit system for every operational discharge from every vessel.Margaret Podlich
Podlich said the permits will be needed for a lot more than just the big ships.
"I mean dinghies, row boats, canoes, kayaks; even those boats that aren't even registered at the state level, all the way up through motor boats, john boats, sailboats, and all the way up," she said.
And it's going to hit a lot of boat owners.
"There are about 13 million registered boats in the country, including about 850,000 registered boats in Minnesota alone," Podlich said. "If you add to that a lot of canoes and kayaks and boats that fit on top of your car and don't have an engine on them, we're probably talking about 18 million recreational boats in this country."
According to the EPA, the ruling also affects 81,000 commercial fishing vessels, and 53,000 barges. The EPA says it's going to publish language soon for a nationwide draft discharge permit.
But don't sell the boat yet.
Jeff Stollenwerk, the ballast program supervisor for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said it is too early for boaters having to worry about getting a waste water permit.
"You know, at this point the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has no intention of permitting most recreational vessels," Stollenwerk said.
In Minnesota, the MPCA administers federal EPA rules and regulations, and the MPCA is not making any plans to administer this one. Stollenwerk said the MPCA has bigger problems to worry about.
"We need to use our best judgment as to where to apply our staff resources to address the highest risk pollution sources," he said.
Stollenwerk said the EPA's threat to regulate boats might not be intended for boat owners at all, it might be aimed at Congress.
"They're responding to that court decision, and it's very possible that that may trigger some action on the federal level to amend the Clean Water Act and clarify that recreational vessels are not intended to be covered by water quality permits," Stollenwerk said.
He might be right. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has sponsored the "Clean Boating Act of 2008" to exempt recreational boats from the permit mandate, but it can take time for a bill to wind through Congress, and there's no guarantee of success.
Meanwhile, the EPA has appealed the court decision, although there's no timetable on the judge's response.
Otherwise, things are already set in stone, Podlich said.
"If nothing occurs, the default is that we will all be included in this permit system," said said. The EPA is expected to publish draft permit language within weeks. That starts a public comment period. Podlich is hoping the owners of 18 million boats will have plenty of commenting to do.