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New bill designed to keep derelict boats out of state waterways

By Rowena Coetsee and Paul Burgarino
Contra Costa Times
October 20, 2009

Legislation enacted Tuesday to combat the growing problem of derelict boats on California's waterways could have a ripple effect locally. Assembly Bill 166 will permit recreational boat owners to hand over their dilapidated vessels to local agencies without paying a penny before they become a danger. The bill was signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, who has worked on removing derelict vessels from Delta waterways since he was a Contra Costa supervisor, was happy to learn that the state now has another tool to rid the county's waterways of the environmental and safety hazards that abandoned boats create.

"Better to get them while they're still floating than after they've sunk," he said.

Pittsburg harbor master Van DiPiero also welcomed the legislation, noting that derelict boats have been an eyesore for years.

"What happens is when these boats gets old, like those built in (the 1940s or 1950s), owners just can't maintain them," he said.

"It's an ongoing problem, especially now that the economy has gone down. If the sheriff's marine patrol can legally take custody and properly dispose of them quickly, hopefully that would help."

Perhaps no one is more pleased with the new law than Sgt. Doug Powell, supervisor of the Contra Costa County Sheriff Office's marine services unit.

He served on a committee of the state Department of Boating and Waterways that was charged with coming up with ways to prevent residents from using California's rivers as dumping grounds.

One of the ideas the group proposed is the new law, which allows the state to treat recreational boats that are surrendered as any other wrecked, abandoned or rundown vessel, he said.

He noted that the state already has a fund to defray the cost of removing these boats, money that law enforcement agencies can apply for if the county also is willing to contribute 10 percent.

The marine services unit patrols about 200 miles of waterways in Contra Costa County, and in 2008-09 it used $106,024 in state and local funds to pull 44 abandoned vessels out of the water.

The agency has applied for a $100,000 state grant this fiscal year to continue the work; Powell says his unit knows of about a dozen recreational boats that have yet to be removed, including an approximately 35-foot, wooden-hull craft that sheriff's deputies came across Monday partially submerged in Fishermans Cut.

Someone had removed the registration numbers and other identifying information before leaving the broken-down vessel there, he added.

People do this rather than pay hefty salvage fees to get rid of their boat legally, fees that cost about $180 per foot, Powell said.

The vessels often become makeshift homes for transients before sinking and leaking fuel, oil and other contaminants into the water, he said.

Submerged wrecks also are dangerous to water-skiers and other boaters, Powell said.

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