Wreckage on the river

Sacramento Delta has abandonment issues

Abandoned boats such as this one pose an environmental threat to the Delta.

Abandoned boats such as this one pose an environmental threat to the Delta.

Photo By Sena Christian

Government officials touring the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in July gasped when they saw the wreckage. They’d heard of the problem with abandoned boats sinking and polluting our waterways, but most had not seen for themselves the extent of the trash.

They gasped loudest in Fisherman’s Cut, off Franks Tract State Recreation Area, a place local fisherman call “The Shipyard,” where roughly a dozen vessels languish, including a few barges and tugboats and, strangely, a vessel that once served as a floating schoolhouse with two classrooms, now half-sunken in the blue water. Inside some of these vessels may be lead-acid batteries, gasoline, lead paint, asbestos, antifreeze, plastic items, appliances and refrigerants from air-conditioning units. And when boats sink, these hazardous materials go straight into the water, affecting sensitive surrounding habitat, wetlands, protected wildlife and levees.

The 40 people toured the Delta as part of a five-hour workshop to examine ecological obstacles faced by the Delta, a water system that supplies two-thirds of the state’s population, or roughly 23 million people, with drinking water. This supply is already difficult to treat for municipal use, and the California Bay-Delta Authority and others predict the challenge will worsen as water quality degrades with future population growth and development along the Delta.

As if we don’t have enough to worry about with mercury-carrying fish, declining fish populations and invasive plant species, plastic debris, subsiding islands, eroding levees and sea-level rise, the eco-tour highlighted the longstanding concern with irresponsible boating on the Delta—including boat abandonment.

“People are becoming more and more aware that these [abandoned] boats aren’t only an eyesore but also an environmental hazard,” said Denise Peterson, boating law-enforcement manager for the California Department of Boating and Waterways.

Local governments struggle to obtain adequate funds to pay for boat removal.

Photo By Sena Christian

California currently pays for the abatement of abandoned boats through the Abandoned Watercraft Abatement Fund, which appropriates $500,000 annually statewide for this purpose. The money may be used only for recreational vessels and requires a 10 percent match by local governments. Existing law holds the registered owner of an abandoned vehicle responsible for the costs of abatement and disposal; oftentimes, an unregistered owner takes off and never ends up paying. The state instituted AWAF in 1997 to help mitigate the high cost counties spend removing vessels and reducing related health hazards, such as oil leaks. But these funds aren’t enough.

“People live on a boat until it starts sinking and then don’t know what to do with it,” said Contra Costa County Marine Patrol Sgt. Doug Powell during the tour. But once a vehicle starts sinking, removal costs about $200 per square foot, he said, which means larger vessels can take hundreds of thousands of dollars each.

A Contra Costa County ordinance prevents boaters from mooring up and staying put indefinitely. The problem, though, is that when Contra Costa cracked down, boaters simply moved to adjacent jurisdictions. Sacramento County is currently developing a similar ordinance, Peterson said. Although Powell’s county has removed more than 300 derelict vessels in the last two decades, restrictions on state funding make it hard for the five Delta counties (Sacramento, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, Solano and Yolo) to do more, he said.

His hope lies in Assembly Bill 1950, which would change the law to authorize abatement of willingly surrendered vessels prior to abandonment; currently, boats can only be removed after they’re abandoned; removing a boat before it sinks would make the process much less costly. The bill was authored by Assemblyman Ted Lieu and should land on the governor’s desk after the state budget is resolved. The legislation would also allow local governments to use money from AWAF to dispose of commercial vessels and not only recreational ones.

The eco-tour was sponsored by the Keep the Delta Clean program, a collaboration of local governments, state agencies and private industry that formed to implement a pollution-prevention infrastructure for the Delta. Before this program, “Recreational boating issues had never been addressed,” said program director Tonya Redfield. Although local governments have long-recognized pollution concerns tied to recreational activities on the Delta—as well as those caused by abandoned boats—a unified effort to educate boaters about how to be more environmentally responsible didn’t exist, nor did the supportive infrastructure.

Keep the Delta Clean partnered with marinas and yacht clubs in 2004 to identify boaters’ needs. And there were plenty. Some boaters spill toxic cleaning products on the docks, which seep through cracks into the water beneath. Or boaters may fail to clean out their boat’s engines, and dirty engines leak fuel and oil into water that is eventually pumped overboard. Oil-recycling centers, oil-absorbent exchange centers, fishing-line recycling stations and pet-waste stations were installed this summer to address these problems and others.

“This is a shared benefit and shared responsibility,” Redfield said, pointing out that when it comes to waterways and boating, jurisdictional boundaries don’t matter.