On a quiet stretch of the Sacramento River – a short ride from downtown – a decaying houseboat serves as a homeless man’s weekend getaway.
The boat’s roof is crumbling, backdoor ajar, bow littered with junk. For months, officials say, it hasn’t moved from its location – anchored 10 feet from Yolo County’s banks a few minutes upriver from downtown Sacramento.
“If this boat sinks, he just walks away,” said Sgt. Sam Machado, a member of Yolo County’s boat patrol, which shares responsibility for policing the region’s waterways with its counterparts in Sacramento County and the cities of West Sacramento and Sacramento.
With the region investing billions of dollars in clean water projects, boating regulations should be tightened to reduce the number of abandoned boats in area waterways, said Oscar Villegas, a Yolo County supervisor.
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He’s asking his staff to draft an ordinance giving the boat patrol more authority to take on the owners of derelict boats such as the homeless retreat Machado pointed out. He also wants to see more done to encourage boat owners to surrender dilapidated boats. He hopes to present a plan in the next couple weeks to his fellow supervisors.
We need to make it easier for people to get rid of boats...before they become a safety hazard.
Oscar Villegas, a Yolo County supervisor
There isn’t an official count of abandoned boats littering and polluting California waterways, said Gloria Sandoval, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Boating and Waterways. Since a grant fund was created to remove abandoned boats from waterways in 1998, local municipalities have used $7 million of it to remove 2,000 boats. Another 500 boats have been surrendered through a program created in 2010 to allow boaters to give up decaying boats, Sandoval said.
The $1.75 million to be spent this year isn’t likely to solve the problem. Boats will often sit abandoned for months before one of the agencies finds the money to remove them. Machado said Yolo County’s $38,000 “vessel abatement” grant is nearly spent. The county used $34,000 removing six vessels. It expects to spend the last of the grant and matching county money junking a seventh boat that’s already been surrendered, Machado said.
Money to remove the boats pointed out by Machado and Villegas on a recent boat tour isn’t yet in hand.
“This boat was found tied up to the dock,” said Machado, pointing to a 20-foot cabin cruiser partially ashore next to West Sacramento’s Elkhorn boat ramp. Machado said the owner claims the boat was stolen out of storage, joy-ridden and junked. Machado has doubts about the story. The owner has since promised to remove it.
“But here it sits,” Machado added.
Around the bend, Villegas pointed to a once proud sailboat partially submerged along the Sacramento shore of the river. Villegas predicts the next storm might sink it.
“We need to make it easier for people to get rid of boats,” Villegas said, “before they become a safety hazard.”
He said too often people find it easier to sell their decaying boat to another owner for next to nothing, knowing the new owner can’t make the needed repairs. Over a number of winters, the boat continues its decay until it sinks and the new owner walks away from the wreckage.
Machado believes it’s a matter of time before the homeless getaway houseboat goes underwater.
Authorities believe the owner of the getaway houseboat uses a kayak to get to and from the Sacramento side of the river. Since the houseboat’s registration is current, there is little authorities can do, Machado said. But given the fact that the boat doesn’t move, they suspect the man dumps his organic waste in the river. The cost of registration is a nominal fee (about $22 annually) and is granted without inspection, Machado said.
“It’s a problem when you don’t have restroom facilities and you aren’t maintaining it,” said Villegas. “When it becomes an environmental problem is when it becomes all of our problem.”