Audit Blasts San Francisco Bay Watchdog on Inaction

The mouth of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission has “neglected its mission” to protect the bay and surrounding wetlands, the California state auditor reported Tuesday.

The commission, which issues permits for activities like boating, dredging and dumping, has a backlog of 230 open enforcement cases, some decades old. “The commission estimates that eliminating its backlog will take 20 years based on historical averages, but the backlog’s recent growth suggests that the problem will likely get worse rather than better,” State Auditor Elaine Howle wrote. “In some instances, the commission’s failure to resolve cases promptly can result in considerable, ongoing damage to the bay.”

Howle cites one example where an abandoned tugboat has been allowed to decay in the San Francisco Bay since the U.S. Coast Guard reported it to the commission in April 2013.

“The Coast Guard believed there was significant risk that the tugboat’s hull would rupture and discharge fuel. However, almost a year later, commission staff closed the case, stating that the commission had no role to play, even though the tugboat was clearly in the commission’s jurisdiction,” Howle wrote. “As of April 2019, the boat remains on the shoreline, decaying in the water. The case file contains no evidence to suggest that the commission or any other agency has addressed the potential environmental hazards the Coast Guard identified.”

Since 1984, unpermitted boats – some being lived in – have been moored in Richardson Bay, described as a shallow and ecologically rich part of the San Francisco Bay near Sausalito. The commission sent cease-and-desist orders to boat owners in 1997 and tried to secure a grant for boat removal in 2013, but no action has been taken to remove roughly 40 illegally anchored boats, Howle found.

The problem has only worsened. 

“Illegal anchoring and abandonment of vessels in Richardson Bay has continued over time, and despite removal efforts by the Richardson agency, more than 200 vessels were illegally anchored in Richardson Bay as of February 2018,” Howle noted, adding the boats often sink and release chemicals that kill off eelgrass – a critical habitat for sea life like the Pacific Ocean herring.

Yet the commission is reluctant to pursue enforcement, Howle said, “because the issue is highly political and involves concerns over displacement of residents.”

Commission chairman Zachary Wasserman said in an interview Tuesday the commission agrees with the auditor’s recommendations overall, but disagrees with some of them.

“On the issue of the boats in Richardson Bay, the auditors looked at it only from one perspective and did not look at the perspective of all the organizations that have jurisdiction there,” Wasserman said. “There’s a whole set of entities that have been grappling with this.”

He said the commission would like to do more, but moving the boats is a massive undertaking that will require money. “Hopefully the audit comments on that will be a spur to in fact do more and do more aggressively,” Wasserman continued. “We do need to do more on our backlog of enforcement matters. It is also an issue of resources.  In some instances, it’s simply a matter of trying to enforce rules, but in this instance it takes money to get those boats out of there.”

Wasserman also said he was pleased Howle did not find any instances of bias toward permittees, as such accusations were what spurred the audit.

But Howle found the commission seems to have a problem prioritizing its cases, designating, for example, biohazardous waste cases as less important than the private use of public areas. Howle said the commission’s matrix for determining priority may too complicated.

“Biohazards being dumped in the bay are not really our jurisdiction. In some situations where it’s discharge from boats we’re share some of the responsibility, yes,” Wasserman said, adding, “We’re taking this very seriously and we’re going to look at our processes and how we set our priorities.

He noted, however, Howle’s audit only pointed out a few instances where the commission’s priorities seemed questionable.

Howle also found commission staff expend a great deal of resources trying to address the violations before referring them to the commission for action, and commissioners have improperly delegated enforcement authority to staff by allowing them to decide what cases pose a significant harm to the bay.

A survey of commission members conducted by Howle’s office showed 77 percent were satisfied with the way commission staff handled enforcement cases, and 68 percent have no concerns about staff performance as it relates to enforcement.

Created in 1965, the commission is composed of 27 members from the nine Bay Area counties – Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano and Sonoma – plus others from local governments, the governor and Legislature, and state and federal agencies.

About 80% of the commission’s budget in fiscal year 2017-18 came from the state’s General Fund, Howle notes, with the rest from the Bay Fill Clean‑Up and Abatement Fund, the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund and grants. Revenue from permit fees go to the General Fund, but fines from violators go to the abatement fund.

In a letter to Howle, the commission’s executive director Larry Goldzban says the commission has not neglected its mission to protect the bay and Suisun Marsh, but says its efforts have been hindered by inefficient records management systems and inadequate staff.

“Indeed, BCDC plans to use this report to advocate for more resources to allow us to make critical improvements and do more enforcement better,” Goldzban said, though he also disputed many of Howle’s findings including delegation of enforcement authority and prioritization.

Howle’s recommendations include simplifying its system for prioritizing cases, identifying stale ones and looking into how much more staff is needed to carry out the commission’s duties. She also suggests a better database for tracking cases.

Responding to Goldzban, Howle wrote: “Enforcement is a key part of the commission’s responsibilities that enables it to protect the bay. The commission states in its response that ‘protecting the bay is integral to everything [the commission] does.’ We agree. As such, when the commission does not perform certain enforcement‑related duties well or at all, as we describe in our report, it neglects to protect the bay.”

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