By Gary Walker
Nearly five years after he initiated legislation to assist local agencies with the preponderance of abandoned vessels in California’s harbors, state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Marina del Rey) is expected to introduce an extension of his earlier bill Thursday, Jan. 17.
Assembly Bill 166, which was signed into law Oct. 7, 2009, was sponsored by Lieu when he was in the Assembly.
AB 166 was a substitute for AB 1950, which Lieu introduced in 2008. AB 1950 was vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who later signed AB 166.
The existing law allows state and county agencies to apply for grants from the Abandoned Watercraft Abatement Fund to help subsidize the removal and disposal of vessels that are no longer seaworthy, have been abandoned or cause an obstruction on the public waterways.
The fund is a state endowment that provides funding that covers the average costs to remove, store and/or dispose of surrendered vessels and other navigational hazards.
“The program has been working well,” Lieu told The Argonaut.
Since AB 166 became law, 144 boats have been turned into authorities, warehoused and subsequently destroyed at a cost of $1,638 per boat. “Without the program, it would have cost $3,892,” Lieu pointed out. “So clearly it has been effective.”
The Argonaut reported Jan. 10 that local agencies have seen an uptick in derelict vessels three years after the bill was passed. But first responders and agencies charged with patrolling local waters believe the program has helped them eliminate what many feel is an additional hazard that they have to contend with in the harbor.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Marina del Rey Station has seen an increase of abandoned vessels over the years and deputies have welcomed the Vessel Turn-In Program component of AB 166. In recent years as the recession took hold throughout the nation, some boat owners found it difficult to afford to pay dock fees and maintain their boats.
“(Owning) a boat is an expensive endeavor,” said Deputy Bryan White of the Marina Sheriff’s station’s marine operations department.
The Vessel Turn-In Program is separate from the existing Abandoned Watercraft Abatement Fund initiative and is funded separately. Participation in the latter is not required to participate in the Vessel Turn-In Program.
“We think it has been very successful,” said Gloria Sandoval, public information officer for the California Department of Boating and Waterways, which administers the abatement fund.
“We have had grant requests for (AB 166) from local agencies that have exceeded the available funding.”
According to state officials, abandoned boats continue to be a major problem in California. They decay and sink, threatening navigational safety and causing environmental damage through the seepage of gasoline, oil, sewage and other toxic substances into the waterways.
Environmental organizations argue that boat paint often contains chromium, lead, mercury and other chemicals. As a vessel deteriorates, the paint can flake off and settles on the sea floor where marine life can swallow it.
Greg Schem, the owner of the Boatyard in Marina del Rey, said there have been two to three boat disposals a month over the last several years in Marina del Rey.
“We have handled some of them ourselves,” said Schem, whose business is located down the street from the sheriff’s station on Fiji Way. “I think AB 166 has been pretty successful eliminating these kinds of boats.”
A group of boat owners in Marina del Rey opposed AB 166 and contend that county authorities have contributed to the number of derelict boats through excessive slip rental fees. After the legislation was signed into law in 2009, Andrew Bessette, president of the Marina Boaters Association, said county officials bore a large responsibility for causing some boat owners to surrender their vessels when they can no longer afford the slip rates and maintenance for their boats.
“It breaks my heart to realize the level of suffering someone must go through, to have no other option than to abandon his or her vessel under any condition,” Bessette lamented. “That Los Angeles County has been responsible, in part, for displacing some of these individuals is disgraceful.”
Sandoval said she has heard from representatives of agencies responsible for local marinas who believe the problems associated with derelict vessels would be far greater without AB 166. “Many of them probably would have been abandoned,” she said.
The boating department has also heard anecdotally that boat owners have taken advantage of the bill to keep their respective harbors from having more abandoned boats.
Carol Baker, a spokeswoman for the county Department of Beaches and Harbors, said the Board of Supervisors wants to showcase Marina del Rey as one of the county’s most valued assets. The supervisors believe there is an aesthetic value in having a marina where the number of abandoned boats is minimal and it can attract more visitors as well as tenants, she said.
“We want to make the Marina as visually appealing as possible,” she said. “That’s our curb appeal: what vessels look like in our docks.”
Schem thinks keeping visitors coming to Marina del Rey to enjoy its restaurants and waterways is critical to the local economy.
“A sea of abandoned boats lined up in the sheriff’s dock is not (a good visual) for people who want to visit the Marina and take a starlight cruise or come for dinner,” he said. “It’s the general public who would see this more than someone who might want to dock their boat here.”
California has the second largest boating population in the United States. There are nearly one million registered vessels, not including those that are federally documented, and boating activity generates roughly $18.5 billion, or about 1.2 percent, to the gross state product annually, according to research done by Lieu’s office.
An extension of AB 166 will require majority approval in the Assembly as well as in the Senate, but Lieu, who was elected to the state Senate in 2011, does not anticipate any obstacles for his bill.
“Because the program has worked so well, I don’t think there will be a lot of resistance,” he said.
The Vessel Turn-In Program has a budget of $150,000 for the fiscal year 2102-13 but according to Sandoval, Gov. Jerry Brown has allotted half that amount for the program. It is slated to sunset, or end, on Jan. 1, 2014.