Dead in the water

A rising tide of abandoned boats in Sacramento County

Sacramento County boat owners are increasingly abandoning ship, with many owners unable or uninterested in keeping up with such scurvy dogs as loan or slip payments.

In Sacramento County, there are presently at least 50 such orphaned boats creating a host of environmental and public-safety problems. There are nine abandoned vessels in a northern area from Sutter County to the Freeport Bridge, 17 in the south from Freeport Bridge to Isleton and 26 in the Delta. There are possibly more that are unseen on the bottom of the rivers and sloughs.

“At the water level, these vessels create a navigational hazard, and boaters also run into problems not being able to see sunken boats,” said Gloria Sandoval, a spokeswoman with California’s Department of Boating and Waterways. “The vessels also create harmful pollution from oil, fuel, antifreeze, toxic paint, [all of which] can destroy fish habitat and affect public drinking water.”

Derelict boats can cause further problems due to human waste in holding tanks and trash. They can also break up during storms or in floods.

The boats also draw thieves in search of scrap metal and equipment, and can become home to squatters living in unsafe, unsanitary conditions.

With these concerns in mind, Sacramento County law enforcement officials have actively scoured waterways to identify vessels with owners missing in action. The fine for dumping a boat can be as high as $3,000.

Once a boat has been flagged as possibly abandoned, locating an owner is not easy. In some cases, owners have removed the vessel’s identification number and name. In other situations, there may be people living on the boat illegally.

“Officials face a big challenge on issues of ownership, particularly if people who are not the owners are living there,” Sandoval said.

Despite these hurdles, the sheriff’s office has four boats ready to be removed: three from Snodgrass Slough and one on the Sacramento River just south of Hood. The DBW’s Abandoned Watercraft Abatement Fund, which allocates $500,000 across the state each year, will fund 90 percent of the cost.

But that still leaves at least 46 boats in the county that are for now dead in the water.

“Given the current economic situation of the county of Sacramento, there are no funds for the sheriff’s department to remove abandoned vessels,” said Marc Warren, a deputy with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. (The county has provided a 10 percent matching grant for the AWAF program for boats.) At the same time, the number of derelict boats is increasing.

“A significant factor has been the economic recession,” Sandoval said. “People unable to make boat or slip payments have abandoned or scuttled their vessels.”

Insurances and maintenance costs and a down market for secondhand boats have also caused owners to walk away. The choppy economic times have also contributed to a rise in abandoned boats nationally and across California.

To help remedy this problem in California, there is a pilot program in place in six cities to encourage struggling owners to voluntarily surrender their vessels. The initiative ends in 2013.

In Sacramento County, officials hope to get more assistance from a state program that helped with boat removal in Contra Costa County.

“We are hoping the money can become available so we can make the upcoming 2011 recreational boating season safer,” Warren said.

Sandoval also recommended that boaters unable to make payments or who no longer want their watercraft be proactive.

“The expense to remove a vessel can be a problem; it costs anywhere from $100 to $300 per foot,” she said. “So I would suggest people consider dismantling, donating or recycling by contacting a salvage yard. Salvage-yard owners might be interested and able to help. And some charities accept boats, and it can be tax-deductible.”