Abandoned boats big problem in Delta

by Gene Bley, CVBT Delta Correspondent

September 10, 2017 9:01pm

•  Delta is the epicenter of abandoned boats

•  “If that sounds confusing or complicated, it is because it is”


Annie Daly, a University of California, Santa Barbara, graduate student from Stockton, who has been studying the problem of abandoned boats in the Delta, state and nation, says it would cost more than $15 million to remove just the commercial abandoned boats in the Delta alone — “and maybe much more than that.”

(Watch a video of the presentation by clicking on the link at the end of this article.)

She told the Delta Stewardship Science Program audience at their recent Sacramento meeting that there is not an official definition of an abandoned boat. “It kind of means a vessel that is dilapidated, unseaworthy, sinking, or no longer can be used for its intended purpose.”

The disposal usually costs more than the worth of the vessel, she added.

The Harbors and Navigation Code says an abandoned vessel is one that remains unseaworthy for more than 30 days.

“You might ask why would someone abandon their vessel?” Ms. Daly asked the audience at the Delta Stewardship Council “brown bag” luncheon event in Sacramento co-sponsored by the Delta Protection Commission.

“Disposal can be expensive,” se said. “People maybe buy boats and don’t realize how expensive they are to maintain. It’s possible to buy unseaworthy vessels very cheap and think you are going to upgrade them for a fun project and not realize how expensive that is. Or you might be one medical bill away from being able to afford a boat anymore. People might also abandon their vessels because it is kind of easy to do. The fine for abandoning a vessel is $1,000 plus the cost of removal but those can be avoided if it can’t be tracked to the owner. “

She added vessels' CF registration stickers are removed that tie them to the owners before they are abandoned and stripped of anything else that might be a clue to the ownership. And in most cases, the counties and state just don’t have the budget to go after the owners.

A good example of a person who bought a boat on the cheap is Robert Burnham, owner of the popular Delta Rusty Porthole restaurant in Bethel Island. He bought the historic 87’Spirit of Sacramento paddlewheel boat at an auction. He was cruising it to Bethel Island in the Delta when it began sinking. He and one other person escaped but his troubles had just begun when the Coast Guard tried salvaging the boat.

“The boat flipped over and fuel began leaking into the water,” Ms. Daly said. “Tides carried the diesel fuel out. It cost almost $2 million to remove the boat and diesel fuel damages.”

“The Delta is the epicenter of abandoned boats,” said Ms. Daly. “One vessel shows the complexity of these issues. This was a commercial fishing vessel that ran aground off the coast of Cayucos July 28 of this year between Cambria and Morrow Bay. The boat was on state lands’ commission property. The Coast Guard removed all the oil and hazardous materials. Officials said there was no evidence of pollution the water. But the cost of removing the boat was about $170,000. The vessel owner couldn’t afford that and didn’t have insurance.”

Ironically, the name of the vessel is Point Estereo and it ran aground at Point Estero.

If you see an abandoned vessel, can you call any particular agency in hopes of getting it removed? There are a network of local, state and federal agencies, Ms. Daly said, but don’t bet on getting any prompt action or any action at all, because of them being so underfunded.

“The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Army Corps of Engineers get involved when a vessel impacts a navigable channel,” said Ms. Daly. “The Coast Guard oversees the federal response efforts when there is a containment or removal of oil or hazardous materials released into the marine environment.

“In California the California State Lands Commission has the authority to remove the abandoned vessels but does not necessarily have the funding to do that,” added Ms. Daly. “The Office of Spill Prevention is the pollution response arm of the California Fish and Game Commission. With the counties, the sheriff’s officers will contract out with private companies to remove the vessels. The Division of Boaters and Waterways runs a reimbursement program that helps pay for removal of the vessels.”

“If that sounds confusing or complicated, it is because it is,” said Ms. Daly.

A big problem is that the state has zero funds earmarked for commercial vessel removals—only recreational boats.

The funds pooled for recreational boat removals averages about $1-$3 million a year. The funds come from boat registration fees, fuel taxes and now the new Road Repair and Accountability Act of 2017. This is mainly another road repair measure that will raise the base excise tax to 30˘ a gallon and 36˘ for diesel fuel. Registration fees will be raised for all vehicles and boats and even a new $100 “road improvement fee” on electric cars that now pay nothing. However, the fees that will be allocated for boating will go to the State Parks and Recreation Department that merged with Boating and Waterways in 2013, and boaters say they doubt that any major funding will benefit the abandoned boats problem.

Anna Swenson, a Clarksburg resident, has had some frustrating experiences trying to report abandoned boats..

“When I moved here almost five years ago,” said Mrs. Swenson, “my first experience with abandoned boats was seeing a craft floating a long ways down the Sacramento River. Having little to no boating experience, I assumed seeing a vessel free floating like that would cause alarm and not require for me to be the one to call any law enforcement agency. I was standing on the Yolo County side of the river. The boat was floating down the middle of the river. So I called my local sheriff. That call and many subsequent calls that evening lead me to a shocking discovery. Both Yolo and Sacramento county sheriff’s departments seemed to have no plan for recovering and securing the boat.

“How could this be? Could this be the first boat to break loose on the Sacramento River? Instead, it was revealed that there was no general number to call to report it. There was no way of getting immediate response. I felt like it was not considered a major issue. That boat ended up stuck up against the Courtland Bridge where it later sunk,” Mrs. Swenson continued. “The Coast Guard did not believe the North Delta is in their jurisdiction, but sent a helicopter to see if anyone was on board. Once it was verified there wasn't, that sunken craft was left there.

“How many times has this happened in the past? Why isn't there a state agency to deal with this? More research proved that there are many agencies with jurisdiction over the Delta but none had any money or resources to actually deal with the first runaway boat that ended up hitting the bridge and sinking. Later, as part of the Delta Protection Commission leadership class, I participated in a discussion with the local enforcement agencies. During this two-hour presentation, I discovered these agencies share vital equipment, such as boat trailers. But the already over worked officers have no money or resources to deal with abandoned vessels. No state agency was making headway at solving the problem, but all were spending money and time analyzing the problems. There is no immediate response that prevents boats from sinking. Once sunk the costs skyrocket to 10 times the cost of hauling out a still floating boat. Our group spent a year photographing vessels that were sinking or sunk along stretches of the North Delta. “

Mrs. Swenson added, “Once under water these boats were forgotten. We spoke with marina owners frustrated with the lack of response or help. In many cases, they were stuck with vessels that would float down into their marinas. Because of ownership issues these boats, although claimed by no one could not be hauled away without years of red tape. In most cases, they remained tied up to docks to rot and wait for a day when the state finally figures out how to solve the problem. The toxic waste from fuel, oil and human waste silently enters our water supply. It's not until many vessels have sunk in one area that the county or state has no choice but to conduct a massive clean up that costs taxpayers millions of dollars. The DMV, unlike cars, does not track ownership of these abandoned boats and hold owners accountable. Vessels sold on Craigslist become ghosts in the system and we the people of the Delta are left to either break the law or tow them away or watch them sink and are forgotten.

“It's time for the state agencies like the Delta Stewardship Council to be stewards of the waterways they claim to have jurisdiction over,” Mrs. Swenson said. “It's time to include local marinas and communities in a clear system of reporting and removal. It's time to realize that these boats impede our water quality and prioritize removal of vessels before they sink. The law enforcement agencies need our support for funding. Maybe we could start by supplying them with basic needs such as boat trailers? Regardless, we have now identified the problem- it's time for action.”

Ms. Daly agreed.

“The problem isn’t likely to go away unless changes are made,” said Ms. Daly in her concluding remarks.

And one of the audience members, during a question and answer period, said he hoped her research would be made available to legislators all around the Delta counties to spur them into action on this problem.

Abandoned boats becoming big problem in Delta, state and nationwide from Gene Beley on Vimeo.

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