abandoned boats

This large abandoned vessel sits in the Old River, just outside of Holland Riverside Marina in Brentwood. 

Legislation authored by Assemblymember Jim Frazier (D - Discovery Bay) and signed into law by Governor Gavin Newson called for the development of a plan for dealing with abandoned and derelict commercial vessels in the Delta, and now a draft of that plan is available for review and public comment.

The passage of Assembly Bill (AB) 2441 resulted in the 27-page report delivered by the State Lands Commission (SLC) on July 1 and it had four stated objectives including: developing a risk-based approach to prioritizing vessels, developing the infrastructure to remove vessels, developing a cost basis for budgeting and providing recommendations to prevent or minimize the future abandonment of commercial vessels. The plan does not provide a mechanism for funding the effort. The bill did initially have a funding component, but it was removed before the final vote.

“I am grateful the State Lands Commission is fulfilling the requirement of AB 2441 on schedule,” Frazier said. “These abandoned, derelict commercial vessels pose a serious threat to the Delta’s ecosystem and navigation of its waterways. I urge interested parties to read and comment on the draft plan. I look forward to the final plan so that we can move forward with clearing the Delta of these hazards.”

The report identified 55 abandoned commercial vessels in the five counties that make up the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Region. A 2017 survey of the Delta identified 14 abandoned or derelict commercial vessels in Contra Costa County. Some of the locations included the San Joaquin River, Broad Slough, Old River and San Pablo Bay.

The report states the estimated average cost of removing a commercial vessel is $200,000, though the costs can vary widely depending on the vessel’s size, location and condition.

“There are a lot of cost factors to consider,” said Steve Hampton, Ph.D., assistant deputy administrator with the Office of Spill Response and Prevention in a 2018 interview. “Generally a vessel that’s under 40 feet can be put on a trailer and taken to the landfill. Once the vessel sinks or once the vessel is over 40 feet, it needs to be disassembled to get it out. You start adding zeros (to the cost), lots of zeros.”

There are programs that fund the removal of recreational vessels, but no such program exists for commercial vessels. The Division of Boating and Waterways (DBW) offers recreational boaters several options once a boat has reached the end of its useful life. The Vessel Turn-In Program allows an owner to surrender a recreational boat to DBW at no cost while the Abandoned Watercraft Abatement Fund (AWAF) provides grants to agencies like the Office of the Sheriff who are tasked with removing abandoned boats.

In 2016, Frazier worked with the California Sheriffs’ Association to introduce AB 2092. It attempted to make AWAF money available for the removal of commercial vessels. But stiff resistance led by the Recreational Boaters of California – who argued that the cost of removing only a few commercial vessels could wipe out the fund – led to the bill stalling, and it never moved forward.

If there’s a single story that serves as the poster child for the problem of abandoned and derelict commercial vessels in the Delta, it’s that of the Spirit of Sacramento – an 87-foot paddle wheel boat that had seen better days when it last went up for auction in 2016.

“It ended up in a marina in the Bay Area,” said Gary Madison with the Contra Costa County Office of the Sheriff marine patrol unit. “The former owner stopped paying the dock fees, and it was auctioned off to some guys that had no idea what they were doing. Somehow they ended up in Franks Tract, and we gave them citations for many violations. They started it up, and it proceeded to sink and leave a huge diesel slick.”

When the Spirit of Sacramento capsized Franks Tract near Bethel Island in September 2016, it was estimated to be carrying 600 gallons of diesel fuel that threatened to leak into prime Delta habit. The vessel that had been purchased at auction for $1,000 created an environmental hazard and cost the U.S. Coast Guard approximately $1.6 million and Contra Costa County $100,000 to remove.

Until a funded plan to deal with abandoned commercial vessels can be implemented, the problems they bring will continue to multiply.

“If the boats are not maintained, they will sink,” said Doug Powell who retired from the Contra Costa County Office of the Sheriff marine patrol unit. “It’s just a matter of time.”

To review the SLC plan for abandoned commercial vessels in the Delta, visit: http://bit.ly/thepress_abandoned_vessels. Information on providing comments on the report can be found on the report’s final page.