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Hunting down the ‘ghost boats’

A derelict vessel in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. (Photo: Mitch Goode)

They lie washed up on the side of levees, they sit silently moored in the quiet sloughs of the vast Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, sometimes drifting aimlessly down the middle of the waterways.  There are hundreds of these abandoned recreational watercraft and commercial vessels in the Delta, and some of them have been slowly wasting away for 60 years or more. Many pose a danger to navigation and the environment.

“Ground zero is the Delta and the Bay, but this is a statewide problem,” Mitch Goode of the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) told a meeting of the Delta Protection Commission.  “San Diego, Moss Landing, Morro Bay – everybody’s dealing with it.”

By one estimate, there are over 200 abandoned vessels in the Delta

The problem is that it costs time and money – a lot of money — to remove abandoned watercraft. But who should do the work and foot the bill?

The government response has been piecemeal at best.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response will respond to abandoned vessels that are leaking substances such as petroleum or fuel oil, but they don’t remove them; the Army Corps will only get involved if the vessel is posing a navigational hazard.  And while programs such as Abandoned Watercraft Abatement Fund and Vessel Turn In Program exist, they apply only to recreational watercraft and not the commercial vessels, which are the greater problem.

And so these vessels continue to sit, their rusty hulls wasting away in the water.

Abandoned Point Estero in the Delta. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Oftentimes, there are hazardous materials on board that seep into the water. “We’ve seen asbestos laden materials, lead-based paints, and all types of batteries; all types of petroleum products from lube oils, engine oils, fuel oils, gasoline, diesel fuel, kerosene, and camping fuel; cooking oils, hydraulic fluid, antifreeze, acids in containers, pressure-treated wood, heavy duty cleaning solvents and degreasers as well as all types of automotive and mechanical sprays such as WD-40, starting fluid, and ether; even radioactive dials that came off old aircraft gauges and instruments…..just to name a few things,” said Mitch Goode.

The cost to clean them up was estimated at roughly $33 million.

Last summer, Annie Daly, a graduate student from the University of California Santa Barbara, used aerial and on-water survey data to estimate the numbers of abandoned vessels in the Delta; she counted over two hundred.

The cost to clean them up was estimated at roughly $33 million, with nearly the entire amount for commercial vessels such as barges and larger ships.  Goode noted that the survey occurred during a high water year which potentially could have obscured some of the watercraft; the actual number could be as much as 10 to 15% higher.

The problem seemed to grow after the housing crash in 2008; watercraft are a luxury item, and when economic times get tough, it can be easier to abandon an unwanted boat in place, or to simply cut lines to allow the problem to float away, Goode said.  However, a more important and pernicious factor is the substance abuse problem in the Delta, which often results in vessels being obtained for very little money. The vessels then end up being used as crack houses or floating meth labs.

“They have lofty ideas, and they go out on do illicit things on these vessels, and end up running them up on the rocks,” Goode said.

Holding the owners of the vessels responsible is difficult, because ownership of the “ghost boats” is often transferred multiple times.

“Somebody trades a houseboat that’s not in very good condition for a six pack of beer, that person trades it for drugs, and then that person trades it to another for a bike tire,” Goode said.  “I’m not exaggerating.  It’s hard to track down who the actual owner is.”

“Who drinks that water that comes out of the Delta?  What’s in that water because all these vessels are deteriorating?” — Peter Pelkofer

Even in cases where the owner is known, not much can be done if the person doesn’t have the funds.

“The individual who owns the crane barge along the Delta Loop has a number of other (pieces of equipment) out in the Delta,” Goode said.  “Sitting underneath that crane is a 120-foot barge; next to it is a 60 or 70-foot barge, all under two to three feet of water.  How do you get that out of there and who is going to pay for it?  Is it the person who allowed it to get to this condition who has little money in the bank to his name?  We have been spending years trying to figure out how to solve these problems.”

An abandoned crane and barge in the “Delta Loop.” (Photo: Mitch Goode

The California State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways (DBW) awards grants annually to local public agencies statewide, mostly counties, for removal of abandoned watercraft.  Last year, funding was increased from $1.7 million to $2.7 million; however, this still falls significantly short of what is needed. The cost to recover the Spirit of Sacramento, a commercial vessel that sunk in Contra Costa County two years ago, topped $3 million — more than the amount in the agency’s budget for an entire year.

Peter Pelkofer, a retired attorney for State Lands Commission, has volunteered his time for the last decade to address the problem.  He said that no agency he knows of gets any kind of funding at all for removal of abandoned vessels.

“Some people say it’s a Delta problem,” Pelkofer said.  “Who drinks that water that comes out of the Delta?  What’s in that water because all these vessels are deteriorating?  They are rusting.  The longer they sit in the Delta, the more contaminants go into the water.”

Without any agency being responsible and without any funding, the problem of removing abandoned vessels will remain unresolved.  “The Point Estero is sitting on the rocks around San Luis Obispo,” Pelkofer said.  “It’s probably going to stay there forever, unless somebody can come up with some funding.  Nobody is going to take it off of there.”

Ed’s Note: Chris Austin is the founder and editor of Maven’s Notebook, which covers California water issues.

 


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