A new State Assembly bill that would give municipalities and counties a hand in ridding their waterways of derelict boats has been submitted to the State Legislature.

Assemblyman Ted Lieu has introduced Assembly Bill (AB) 166 as a way of assisting county and state personnel in eliminating watercraft that have been abandoned.

Government agencies are responsible for towing and disposing of these vessels, which is subsidized by the taxpayers. AB 166 would access funds that county agencies like the Department of Beaches and Harbors could utilize to offset the growing cost of storing and later destroying abandoned boats.

Last year Lieu sponsored similar legislation, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger chose not to sign into law following the drawn-out budget debate. This year, Lieu feels that his new bill has a better chance to succeed.

“There are two reasons why I think AB 166 has a good chance this time,” Lieu explained. “Even more law enforcement agencies are behind it this year, and even more boats are abandoned on the waterways because of the downturn in the economy.”

Law enforcement and boating enthusiasts throughout the state are supporting AB 166.

“The California State Sheriffs’ Association is very pleased to co-sponsor this important legislation regarding abandoned watercraft,” said Placer County Sheriff Edward Bonner, association president. “Some of our state’s waterways have now become ‘aquatic junkyards’.

“This legislation will give us much-needed resources and authority to remove abandoned or otherwise unseaworthy watercraft from our California waterways.”

Greg Schem, a Marina del Rey lessee who owns The Boatyard on Fiji Way, says the bill can be beneficial to the boating public and to government agencies.

“I think that it’s a good idea,” said Schem, who docks his boat in the Marina. “Derelict boats can be an eyesore for the Marina.”

As the financial crisis has worsened and slip rates have increased in Marina del Rey, many boat owners have abandoned their vessels with greater frequency, say state and county officials. These events have led to increased costs to government agencies responsible for patrolling and supervising state and county marinas.

“Many coastal and river communities in California are trying to remove boats that have sunk and are clogging waterways because their owners can’t afford to keep them seaworthy during these difficult economic times,” the assemblyman said. “AB 166 represents a smarter way of using existing funds during tough economic times to address an important environmental problem.”

These abandoned vessels also leak toxins, such as fuel and oil, into the water that have the potential to harm wildlife, according to state authorities.

A subtext to the legislation is a proposal by Schwarzenegger to eliminate the Department of Boating and Waterways, a state agency that works to improve access to the water for the recreational boating public and to make boating as safe as possible.

The governor’s office estimates that merging the agency with the state Department of Parks and Recreation could save taxpayers approximately $600,000.

The boating department would provide the grants to help offset the cost of storing and later destroying abandoned vessels to government agencies and also provide statewide loans and grants for marine projects. Its revenues are derived from the fuel taxes paid by boaters and do not come from the state’s general fund.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, who represents Marina del Rey, is among many local and state officeholders who are opposed to the governor’s proposal.

“The Department of Boating and Waterways is critical to the future of boating in California, and any diversion of funds may result in the rapid deterioration of California’s boating waterways and infrastructure,” said Knabe.

Not all boat owners in the Marina feel the way that the supervisor does about Boating and Waterways. Andrew Bessette, president of the Marina del Rey Boat Owners Association, does not see any tangible benefits that the agency has brought to recreational boaters locally.

“I don’t think that Boating and Waterways has done a lot to help boat owners here in the Marina,” said Bessette, who opposed Lieu’s previous bill targeting derelict boats, AB 1250.

Schem, whose company demolishes derelict and abandoned vessels, disagrees.

“I think that [Schwarzenegger’s proposal] is a very bad idea,” he said. “Demolishing a boat can be very expensive for the county, and Boating and Waterways provides well thought-out standards for boaters and the construction of marinas.”

Knabe feels that eliminating the department will deprive many of his boating constituents of the full range of services that Boating and Waterways provides.

“Boaters will still pay registration fees, but they won’t be getting the full benefit of those fees as they have in the past,” the supervisor noted.

Lieu is hopeful that his colleagues as well as Schwarzenegger will be receptive to AB 166.

“It makes perfect policy sense,” he said.

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