Bren News
  Annie in front of an abandoned vessel located during the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Office of Spill Prevention and Response’s on-water survey.

Exploring the Issue of Abandoned and Derelict Vessels in the Delta

6 September, 2017

Guest blogger: Annie Daly
(MESM 2018)

As the saying goes: “The two best days in a man’s life are the day he buys a boat and the day he sells it.”

Or, in some darker versions of this story, “…the day he abandons it in state waters, unable to pay for proper disposal, leaving the vessel in disrepair, to be worked upon by the elements as it leaks oil and other hazardous material into the water source we all depend on for recreation, agriculture, and drinking water.”

Ah, the poetry of boat ownership.

While abandoning a boat may sound absurd to many a responsible boat owner, a brief drive through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta demonstrates its prevalence. Abandoned vessels of all sizes are littered throughout the region. Barges, cruise ships, former military vessels, fishing vessels, sailboats, paddleboats, and houseboats can be found along the banks, on the islands, and in the channels of the largest estuary on the west coast of North America. Some vessels have sunk, some are upside-down, and some are partially submerged. Some are leaking oil and almost all commercial vessels are certain to have hazardous or radioactive material onboard. Many of the larger vessels have been in place for years, if not decades. New smaller vessels can show up on a weekly basis.

These vessels pose navigational, environmental, and public health and safety risks and while many parties would like these vessels removed from the waterways, removal can be expensive and logistically difficult. California has no comprehensive program that covers the removal of all vessels. Instead, a network of federal, state, and local agencies share the authority to remove abandoned vessels, but only some of these agencies have access to funding to support removal.

Madi attending a Senate Subcommittee hearing on the national marine sanctuaries program on Capitol Hill.
Barge covered in debris, found during on-water survey of the Delta.

Access to funding is crucial because if the original vessel owner can not be located, which is often the case, then the cost of removal falls upon the state or the federal government. The funding is tight, the problem is complicated, and like so many environmental issues, neither the issue itself nor the solution is black and white. California has the 4th largest number of registered boaters in the county and these vessels are likely to continue to be a problem for the state unless changes are made.

  Barge covered in debris, found during on-water survey of the Delta.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) is part of a team of agencies seeking a solution to this problem and I am thrilled to be working with them this summer on the state’s abandoned derelict vessel problem. As an initial step in addressing this issue, the Office of Spill Prevention and Response conducted an aerial survey to collect data on the number and types of vessels in the Delta. This summer OSPR supplemented the aerial survey with an on-the-water survey, which enabled us to gather higher resolution information on vessel condition, hull material, and vessel accessibility for removal. Using these sets of data, as well as historic Google Earth imagery, I generated a cost estimate for the removal of abandoned vessels from the Delta, roughly determined a rate of vessel abandonment, and put together an inventory of abandoned derelict vessels in the region. I also conducted interviews with abandoned vessel program coordinators in other coastal states to learn whether any successes they have experienced could be replicated in California. In my last couple weeks on the job, I’m looking into ways that the inventory of vessels compiled based on OSPR’s surveys can be turned into a living database that can be updated regularly by either members of the public or staff from state and local agencies.

Through these methods we hope to better understand the problem and develop strategies for dealing with this issue more effectively in the future. While the path to a solution may not be dead ahead, OSPR and other state agencies are setting a course and with all hands on deck a solution seems within close reach.

Annie Daly is a 2018 MESM student specializing in Coastal and Marine Resource Management. This summer she is interning with California Fish and Wildlife Department’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response in Sacramento, California.