Downtown Portland Oregon

When transient boaters abandon their vessels in the Willamette River, they cause pollution and cost the state tens of thousands of dollars. While so-called aquatic squatters are fairly new in the Portland area, they’re a familiar sight in other parts of the country, such as in the Florida Keys. According to the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, about 40 boaters currently live full-time on county waterways. Compare that with five years ago, when the county was aware of just one full-time river resident. As Portland’s homeless and near-homeless population grows, so does the number of transient boaters, mooring in inlets and along public piers, sometimes for months on end. Today we’re examining how our area’s river ecosystems are negatively impacted by transient boaters’ dumping habits, as well as the cost of retrieving sunken boats. Finally, we turn an eye toward what is being done to solve this problem.

Environmental Impact of Sunken Boats

As far as this type of Portland hazardous waste goes, the idiom “Out of sight, out of mind” surely applies. Because we can’t see sunken vessels, many of us give little thought to how they may be affecting the health of the Willamette’s ecosystem. Yet the costs are many.

Salvage companies who retrieve the boats report that the trash inside often weighs more than the vessel itself. Soaked clothes, bags of trash, furniture, and tools may be enclosed. Such detritus does not quickly break down, and lingers in local waterways. Just as with marine trash, plastics may entangle or poison fish and other river creatures. Sunken boats may also release toxic fluids, such as gasoline, into the river. Even miniscule amounts of engine fluids are deadly to wildlife.

Even before a derelict boat sinks, transient boaters pose ecological problems. Condo owners and marina managers report observing transient boaters dumping trash and sewage into the river. Given the improvement of the river’s health over the past few years—today one even observes swimmers in the Willamette’s waters—this final pollutant is especially alarming.

In addition to these ecological costs, there are financial burdens associated with removing sunken boats. The State Marine Board estimated a total cost of $5,000 to $10,000 to retrieve a dilapidated yellow sailboat that sunk just south of the Hawthorne Bridge in early August, for instance.

What is Being Done to Stop the Problem

On January 1st, a new rule took effect limiting the amount of time that boaters could spend in any one location. Previously, those living on vessels had to move every 14 days—but there was no requirement on how far they had to move. The new law requires that they move after 30 days—but they must move a minimum of five nautical miles, and they are not permitted to return to the same area for an entire year. Failing to meet these requirements can bring trespassing charges and fines up to $1,000 per day.

However, enforcement is proving difficult, as the two agencies responsible for the Willamette—the Division of State Lands and The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office’s River Patrol—lack the resources to follow through. Indeed, as of July 22nd, the State Land Board had not cited a single violation of the new rule. Even if they did issue citations, it’s likely that the squatters could not afford to pay fines, as many of them are on the brink of poverty as it is.

Given this reality, state agencies are taking a fresh approach to the problem. Instead of treating it as a criminal issue, they’re looking at it as a housing issue. The Sheriff’s Office is sending social workers to help aquatic squatters find permanent housing. Additionally, the State Marine Board has volunteered to pay for a new waste pumpout station on the river, to provide a place for boaters to empty their sewage. Moreover, the river patrol intends to create a program for turning in derelict boats before they can sink into the river. In that case, it would cost hundreds, rather than thousands of dollars, for deputies to process turned in vessels. Todd Shanks, a river patrol deputy, has also proposed an aquatic subsidized housing resource, where boaters could access electricity, toilets, and fresh water while seeking permanent housing. However, such a program would require funding, which has yet to be found.

Homelessness is not a new problem in Portland, and whether or not it’s on land, it’s not an issue that can be resolved overnight. Still, those of concerned with hazardous waste and its disposal are hopeful that local agencies can find help for transient boaters, and solutions to the ecological problems they bring.

[Photo by: Mr. Thomas, via CC License]