June 26, 2008

Delta’s Aquatic Junkyards Polluting Waters: Funding Needed to Rid the Delta of Derelict Vessels Polluting Waters

By Matthias Gafni, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif.

Jun. 26--It would have been a perfect location to anchor a Delta houseboat. A stunning view of Bradford and King Edward islands, with a private fishing hole and solitude.

However, by the time sheriff's deputies found the 40-foot vessel with no working engines, it was sinking. Lead-based batteries and butane tanks littered the premises. There was no working toilet.

"It's filthy with feces and old food," Contra Costa sheriff's Sgt. Doug Powell said.

After the sheriff's marine patrol unit earlier this year contacted the elderly owner, an alcoholic with no money except for Supplemental Security Income, he floated the houseboat out of Contra Costa County waters to avoid patrols, Powell said. After a short stint in San Joaquin County waters, he headed to rehab and his flotilla of stench drifted back near Bethel Island after a windstorm.

"Now we're stuck with it," Powell says.

Welcome to "Waterworld," the patrol unit's unfortunate nickname for Fisherman's Cut, due to its large number of marine squatters. The sheriff's office has removed more than 300 derelict recreational vessels from the county's waterways since 1987, according to a recent Contra Costa County Grand Jury report.

No agencies have started to tackle the growing number of abandoned commercial vessels, mostly due to a lack of funding, the report says. To rid the county and its 200 miles of waterways of all the abandoned commercial vessels and debris would cost millions of

dollars, Powell said.

"I don't have a solution at this time," the sergeant said. "We're looking at a time where the sheriff's budget has been slashed and the state has its fiscal problems. Where would the money would come from? I don't know."

The county skirts by on a limited state grant that only permits the sheriff's office to remove recreational vehicles. So, sunken barges, tug boats, ditched minesweepers and cranes, decrepit pilings and other maritime ghosts have littered the county's waterways from Richmond to Byron for years. Some of the largest vessels exceed 300 feet in length and creosote-treated pilings number in the thousands.

"If we had the means to remove commercial vessels we would. We want the waterway to be clean. It's our drinking water and habitat for fish and wildlife," Powell said.

Besides creating an "eyesore and navigation hazard," these vessels create an unknown environmental impact, said Sejal Choksi, San Francisco Baykeeper program director.

"Abandoned boats and abandoned pilings cause pretty significant environmental and public safety issues," Choksi said. "Boats have lead batteries, appliances left, lead paint and fuel. All these things in small amounts may not have a huge impact, but if you look at the number of abandoned boats in the Delta and Bay, it can have a cumulative impact."

The state recognizes Contra Costa, particularly the sheriff's office, as one of the busiest vessel removers in California.

"Contra Costa is very diligent. They do come to the table every year and they do spend their money," said Denise Peterson, state Department of Boating and Waterways law enforcement manager. This year, the sheriff's office will receive $93,000, including a 10 percent matching amount from the county from the state's limited Abandoned Watercraft Abatement Fund. Only $500,000 is available to agencies statewide.

Since fiscal year 2002-03, the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office has spent more state grant money than any agency in California, according to state records. About 19 percent of the state's 880,000 registered boaters reside in Contra Costa, according to the county.

A portion of recreational boat registration fees goes toward the abatement fund, which limits its scope to only derelict pleasure craft removal or hazards that directly affect boat navigation.

"We got it down when it comes to recreational vessels. If the sheriff's office didn't do it, no one would," said Powell, whose agency plans to remove 37 hazards this year.

Powell and his office helped pass legislation in 1997 creating the abatement fund. In 2005, his office helped to get the county to pass a local ordinance restricting damaged boats from anchoring in Contra Costa waters without a permanent dock and proper sanitation. Violators can be fined and have their vessel confiscated.

The number of abandoned boats has dropped since the ordinance began, Powell said. Neighboring counties are copying the legislation to prevent these marine squatters from anchoring in their jurisdiction, he said.

Assembly Bill 1950, currently in committee, would create a vessel turn-in program, allowing boaters to surrender vessels to agencies free of charge.

Removing an abandoned recreational vessel from the water costs about $180 per foot. So pulling out a 40-foot houseboat would cost at least $7,200, and there are additional costs associated with hazardous materials on board and its level of submersion.

Finding owners of abandoned recreational or commercial vessels is rare, Powell said. Owners are usually indigent or can't be found, and the hull numbers are often removed, leaving tracing the vessel and collecting payment nearly impossible.

To combat the problem, the grand jury recommended the county look for other funding sources, including nonprofits, and agencies to assist in vessel removal.

It also suggests creating a telephone tip line to report abandoned vessels and a program similar to the state's "Adopt-a-Highway" effort.

Matthias Gafni covers Contra Costa County. Reach him at 925-952-5053 or [email protected]

full report To read the full Contra Costa Grand Jury report "Aquatic Junkyards Exist in Contra Costa County" visit www.cc-courts.org/grandjury.

If you go -- Who: Boaters, anglers and Delta visitors -- What: "Keep the Delta Clean Day" -- When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 28; one-hour Delta boat tours 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (on the hour) -- Where: Sugar Barge Marina & Paradise Bar and Grill, 1440 Sugar Barge Road, Bethel Island -- Online: www.keepthedeltaclean.com. Supervisors Federal Glover and Mary Nejedly Piepho will join other speakers in discussing how to improve the quality of water in the Delta. The event, sponsored by Keep the Delta Clean Program, works to promote clean and safe boating to sustain quality recreation and environmental health in the waterway. The program offers services such as oil recycling, oil absorbent exchange, fishing line recycling, and pet waste stations, along with cigarette butt disposal containers. The newly installed environmental services are free to the boating community. Three of the program's Oil Recycling Centers have collected about 6,585 gallons of oil, 4,290 oil filters, 3,480 pounds of oil absorbents and more than 1,000 used marine engine batteries from the boating community, according to the program.


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Copyright (c) 2008, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif.

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