The Delta and other Contra Costa County waterways have become aquatic junkyards cluttered with abandoned boats and buildings that are not only a danger and an eyesore, but may also be polluting a major drinking-water source in California, a county Grand Jury has concluded.
There are places in the county where waterways, shorelines and adjacent land are littered with debris, abandoned vessels, docks and pilings, gutted mobile homes and houses that have fallen into the waterway, the Grand Jury states in an investigative report, Aquatic Junkyards Exist in Contra Costa County.
Derelict vessels and many other abandoned objects in the county's waterways contain toxic substances. Examples include creosote-treated pilings, lead-acid batteries, fuel tanks, asbestos and lead paint. These vessels are often accompanied by junk and debris, including butane and propane tanks, kitchen appliances, tires, barrels, scrap iron and portable toilets.
The report criticizes county officials for not doing more to clean up its 200 miles of waterways and shoreline: County enforcement of laws pertaining to these waterways is, at best, marginal. This has caused numerous problems.
Recreational and commercial vessels abandoned over the years are a threat to navigation and water quality. Trash of all kinds has been left in and adjacent to the waterways. Houses and docks have been built in locations not zoned for habitation. There are also abandoned, dilapidated commercial buildings and docks along the water's edge and many thousands of aging, creosote-treated pilings.
The county has dealt with the problem slowly in some instances, and not at all in others.
County Supervisor Federal Glover responded to the report's charges via e-mail, saying that prior to his taking office in 2000, no one in the county had taken action to clean up the waterways, and that he sponsored a county ordinance that fines boat owners who abandon their vessels and makes them repay the costs to haul them out.
I agree with the Grand Jury that the county could be doing more, said Glover, but because this issue was neglected for so long a time, the sheriff's office has had to play catch-up with those boat owners who saw the Delta as their dumping ground.
Some of the sunken vessels are not boats but are large ships one is even a concrete ship and removing them from the Delta and hauling them to land is an expensive process. It is not as easy as using a tow truck to pick up an abandoned car. The county must prioritize its work and use its funding where it can do the most good, especially in select areas which have heavy traffic.
There is much work still to be done and it will get done, but over a longer period of time. However, what the report fails to recognize is that the county is a leader in this effort. It was the first among Delta counties to produce and enforce such an ordinance, and other counties are just beginning to emulate our effort.
The Grand Jury report does compliment the county sheriff's department for removing more than 300 derelict vessels in the last 20 years, but notes that little has been done to remove abandoned commercial vessels due to restrictions on state funding.
This limitation has left many large abandoned commercial vessels on or adjacent to the waterways, the report states. The sheriff has the authority to remove these, but not the necessary financial or staff resources to do so.
Abandoned vessels and junk that cannot be dealt with by the sheriff include: tugboats, commercial fishing boats, schooners, houseboats, barges, dredges, cranes, dilapidated buildings on barges, and other large vessels. Some of these exceed 300 feet in length. Some of these derelict vessels are partially or totally submerged and are difficult to locate and remove.
Not all of the structures are abandoned, however. The sheriff's office reported that some people buy derelict vessels, move them to out-of-the-way locations and live in them or become squatters in formerly abandoned vessels.
They pollute the waterways with garbage and untreated human sewage, the report states.
County Supervisor Mary Piepho disagrees with the Grand Jury's finding that the county has not made Delta cleanup a priority. She said she has worked with the sheriff's department and East County cities not only to retrieve abandoned vessels but also to find storage for them once they are out of the water so that they can be claimed by their owners or dismantled.
Piepho said she has also worked with the four other counties bordering the Delta to better coordinate their enforcement efforts, and that the supervisors have been supportive of the county sheriff's department's efforts to deal with the problems.
I know, personally being a resident on the Delta, it's been a very important issue, said Piepho, who lives in Discovery Bay. The fundamental issue is lack of revenue. The state doesn't provide funding for the abandoned vessel removal, not enough to meet the need.
To that end, she supports raising the $20 boat registration fee and allocating the money for the removal and dismantling of abandoned vessels.
The Grand Jury concluded its report with several recommendations, beginning with the formation of a joint task force to develop a plan for the cleanup of the county's waterways and adjoining shoreline.
The plan should identify other agencies responsible for the Delta as well as find funding sources to pay for cleanup. It should also look into whether it makes sense to start an Adopt-A-Waterway program similar to Adopt-A-Highway. In addition, county officials should lobby for an increase in the state boat registration fee to fund the removal of abandoned vessels.
Although the Grand Jury report was issued in early June, no action has been taken to form the task force, according to County Sheriff Warren Rupf. He agrees with the Grand Jury that there's a significant problem, and agrees with Piepho about the lack of funding to fix it.
Grand juries are perhaps the most helpful tool that the government has to make sure our ideas and actions and momentum are moving in the right direction, said Rupf. They give us all a reality check. They are on the mark in regards to this particular report.
I am not optimistic that there's going to be any monies available to the board to allocate for any of this. We are hoping we can streamline (the state funding process) so the monies can be immediately available and keep the momentum and get out ahead of the stuff.
The Grand Jury consists of 19 county residents impaneled each year as an independent body under the guidance of a Superior Court judge to conduct investigations on county matters. The complete report is available online at www.cc-courts.org/grandjury.