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Proposed Bill Would Make Fund For Salvaging Derelict Delta Boats

CONTRA COSTA COUNTY (KPIX 5) – A new bill is in the works that would provide funding when California agencies need to remove derelict boats from Delta waters.

Scores of dilapidated boats now litter the Delta. Some have people living on them, but most are abandoned.

The bill will target just the five Delta counties -- Contra Costa, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Solano and Yolo -- and would put around $6.5 million per year into an account to remove these vessels.

Members of the Contra Costa Sheriff's Department's Water Services Unit are the first responders if boaters need help on the Delta. But some boats are way beyond help.

"They just dumped it there. Got rid of all the numbers and stuff so it cannot be identified," explained Contra Costa Sheriff's Deputy Gary Madison.

On Wednesday, Madison was inspecting an old fishing trawler that he said was deliberately left to sink in the waters off Pittsburg. But what's really shocking is how much it will cost to remove it.

"I think my marine salvage operator estimated about $60,000," said Madison.

Madison heads up the derelict boat program and he's not hurting for business. There are old ships and barges half-sunk, both in the small harbors and, some -- like a new barge just found Wednesday -- are right in the boating channel.

Many of the vessels are bought as junk for a few dollars and dragged out to remote parts of the Delta to serve as makeshift housing. And there's not much anyone can do about it, despite the salvage costs.

"Every violation is a misdemeanor or infraction, so they only get citations," said Madison.

The classic case was the Spirit of Sacramento, an old paddle-wheel boat that a man bought for $1,000.  When it sank, it cost the taxpayers $3 million to remove it.

Often, the junk boats leach diesel fuel or lead paint into the water. And because they're commercial vessels, there is no money available to pay for removal and salvage.

But Assemblyman Jim Frazier has introduced AB 2441 to use state land-leasing fees in the Delta to create a salvage fund to cover the cost of getting rid of the old boats and finally give Madison what he needs to do his job.

"We have plenty of issues. If we have the funds we can very easily spend as much as they give us," said Madison.

If the legislature approves the bill, it would generate about $6.5 million per year to remove derelict vessels in the five Delta counties.

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