Subscribe for 33¢ / day

OAKLEY -- They can be bought for a song at a government auction and towed to the Delta, run aground and used as homes or junkyards, but many of these massive, derelict commercial vessels are abandoned and leaking pollutants into the waters.

In 2016, the Spirit of Sacramento, an 85-foot paddle-wheeler built in 1967, was bought at auction for $1,000 after its former owner couldn't pay fees to Oyster Point Marina in San Francisco. The buyers tried to pilot it up through the Delta, but foundered in False River, an aptly named waterway. It eventually cost around $3 million to clean up.

Though the State Land Commission successfully located and sued the new owners for the costs, there's often no owner for them to sue. To make matters worse, there is no money for removing commercial vessels, which are often the worst polluters, from the Delta waters.

AB 2441, authored by Assemblyman Jim Frazier (D-Discovery Bay), is hoping to change that. 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.

The money would come from state surface land leasing fees from the five Delta counties that are normally paid directly into the state's general fund.

The abandoned boat problem has a number of forces driving it. The Bay Area's housing crisis has pushed some humans to consider living in a half-sunken hulk ensconced in the coves of the Delta.

"They come from U.S. Marshal sales or state lien sales through marinas and they sell big commercial vessels for a few dollars and people tow them to the Delta; then they sink and they live on them until they're unlivable and they go get another one," said Peter Pelkofer, senior counsel and maritime attorney with the State Lands Commission.

Others see an opportunity. Old boats are sold at federal or state auctions for next to nothing and someone with big dreams comes through to purchase it, but either can't make it seaworthy again or can't pilot it themselves.

Even so, some derelict vessels are picturesque: A half-sunken fishing trawler sits off the Bay Point shoreline facing the foothills of Mount Diablo; an old tug, the Polaris, rests between a decaying dock and Four Fools Winery in Rodeo; a 1955 cruise ship, the Aurora, was being restored at a marina northwest of Stockton.

Some also are pure oddities: A handful of rusting old barges, lashed together between Winter and Kimball islands, is starting to resemble the scrap-metal island from the movie "Waterworld." Nearby, the same person has been letting barges sink and then filling them with gravel to literally build new land.

There's money available to remove recreational boats that have wrecked or were abandoned. Every time a recreational boat is registered or fuels up, a small amount goes toward grants handed out through the Surrendered and Abandoned Vessel Exchange. The Vessel Turn-In Program helps remove these boats before they sink.

In California, the Division of Boating and Waterways defines a vessel by what it was originally intended for, even if an owner bought a coastal trading ship for use as a pleasure barge.

Normally a commercial vessel would be tied to commerce and a business, but some boats are sold for $1 and the responsibility of maintaining the vessel is passed down to anyone with $1 in their pocket.

"We tell them that they need to do something about this or we will take your stuff. They just say, 'Go ahead'," said Doug Powell, a formerly retired lieutenant with the Contra Costa Sheriff's Office who now works with the office's Marine Patrol Unit.

As Powell discussed this fact aboard a Sheriff's Marine Patrol Boat on Monday, an unnamed and unidentified tug boat pulled past the law enforcement boat to add a new barge to the floating scrap-metal island between Winter and Kimball islands.

Around 10 barges, with two other barges resting atop those barges, were connected and resting on a shallow portion of Broad Slough between the islands. Old backhoes and cranes peered over stacked five-gallon buckets and a rather large tank marked "diesel fuel."

Though many agencies have a stake in removing the vessels, none is tasked with removing commercial vessels nor can they bear the costs.

The Coast Guard can assist with a sinking ship by using money from the Oil Spill and Liability Trust Fund, which is funded through taxes on the oil industry, but only to remove the oil, not the vessel. Powell said that in some instances, the Coast Guard was only authorized to float the sunken vessel up to the surface, remove the oil, then let it sink back to the bottom of the river.

Get news headlines sent daily to your inbox

All the while, asbestos and flaking lead-based paint from the older ships pollute the river and can hide just underneath the surface when the tide comes in, potentially sinking recreational boaters who aren't following their navigational maps closely.

Along the eastern end of Donlon Lake, next to Sherman Island, several military "LASH lighter" containers, or floating fiberglass containers, have been lashed together and old portable classrooms have been stacked on top.

The floating cargo containers have been used throughout the Delta to create platforms for homes, but the containers can only be removed if they break apart, creating marine debris that there is funding for.

There are around 250 boats abandoned in the Delta, about 54 of which are commercial vessels, according to a 2017 survey by the Department of Fish and Wildife. It's estimated that to remove all these vessels would cost over $30 million.

There are likely far more wrecks than what have been identified in the survey, though, Pelkofer said.

"I know by just being out there that there are at least a half-dozen more (than the survey)," he said. "Others are either on land or so deeply embedded that to remove them would be an environmental disaster. The whole deal is to remove them to save the environment, but sometimes it's better to leave it where it is."

One old historic wreck would be mistaken for land if it weren't for a portion of the old steam-powered ferry's crankshaft that stuck up above the waters.

Off Fulton Shipyard in Antioch, passersby can still see the "A" frame of the old Railroad Ferry Steamer "Solano," which was the largest ferryboat when it was built in 1906. It was deliberately sunk there in 1930 to break incoming waves, but a fireworks display from its decks on July 4, 1983, burned it down to the waterline.