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Engineering a massive cleanup of toxic waterways (photos)

Boats, barges, and buildings dumped in a San Francisco Bay Area delta are leaching toxic chemicals into local drinking water, but a huge effort to clean it up is under way.

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James Martin
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1 of 11 James Martin/CNET

Delta cleanup

Hundreds of abandoned vessels of varying sizes and stages of decay litter the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta's 738,000 acres. Marine debris, some of which is decades old, is polluting the same waterways that provide drinking water to two-thirds of California with oil, hydraulic fuels, paints, and asbestos.

To address the issue, state waste management agency CalRecycle has teamed up with the State Water Resources Control Board and the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Department to eliminate these hazards from the system of natural and man-made water channels. But hauling out old boats, barges, and buildings is no easy feat.

The heavy equipment needed to break up, haul, and tow the debris, some of which is as large as houses, must be negotiated through the complex system of waterways with 10-ton vehicles moved to soft-soiled islands on barges. Managing the cleanup, commercial divers and work crews transport the materials to the appropriate disposal and recycling facilities.

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Costa Sheriff's Marine Patrol

Calfed, a federal-state program in charge of managing the Delta, is on the verge of financial insolvency, adding to the environmental problems and making it more difficult to secure funding for projects like this.

For more than 10 years, local agencies have been trying to secure funding for a cleanup project of this kind, while the debris continued to sit, polluting the waterways.

On Wednesday, CNET rode along with the Contra Costa Sheriff's Marine Patrol and Sgt. Doug Powell to take a look at the problem and the solutions that are finally being put in place to clean up one of California's most important natural resources.

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Safe water

In April 2009, the environmental group American Rivers declared the Sacramento River Delta the nation's most endangered waterway system. The Delta's environmental problems include pollution, declining fish populations, and aging levees.

The drainage basin is one of California's most important natural resources, providing drinking water to two-thirds of the state's population. Covering thousands of square miles of California's land, the Delta is home to approximately 22 species of fish, including the Delta smelt, a key indicator species for the health of the Delta's ecosystem that in 2004 was found to be on the edge of extinction.

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Garbage

Instead of properly disposing of unwanted boats and barges, hundreds of vessels have had their identification tags stripped and left to rot along the waterways and in the marshes.

The cleanup program is being funded by tipping fees collected when waste is disposed of in landfills, which currently costs just $1.40 per ton.

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Fiberglass barge

The Delta's waterways are a maze of channels, and the law enforcement jurisdiction, rules, and regulations governing the area are often confusing or unclear, giving the Delta a sort of "Wild West" feel.

The occupant of this RV, which is parked on a derelict fiberglass barge, has been moored along this marshy island for years. The occupant claims he owns the island, a contention being disputed by Sacramento County officials.

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Polluted waterways

The scale of pollution stewing in the Delta's waters would bring public outrage if these contaminants were on land, said CalRecycle officials.

Moving these vessels, some of which have been sitting for years, can spill additional chemicals, fuels, and oils into the Delta, so the cleanup also involves careful containment of the contaminants to protect the water and the more than 500 plant and animals species that live in the Delta's waters.

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Barges

In addition to abandoned commercial shipping vessels, there are also huge abandoned buildings. Cleanup officials referred to this site, which contains two partially sunken buildings as "the school."

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Tires and barges

Surrounded by a yellow containment buoy to prevent the spread of toxic chemicals, a crane lifts tires pulled from the Delta's waters into a truck for disposal.

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Coordinated cleanup

Logistically, the cleanup effort involves massive coordination.

Dive teams and engineers collect the scuttled and sunken debris from the waterways and tow the materials to a central location where heavy machinery waits to dismantle and load the garbage for offsite disposal.

The machinery--including trucks, cranes, diggers, and excavators used to break up and haul away the debris--have been transported by barge to this island and staged along the levee.

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Abandoned ships

An excavator uses its arm to smash a rotted ship to pieces before loading it into a waiting dump truck.

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$465,000 cleanup

The State Water Resources Control Board's Cleanup and Abatement Account will contribute $100,000 toward the project cost, and CalRecycle's Solid Waste Disposal Site Cleanup Program will cover the remainder of the estimated $465,000 cleanup.

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