Three days into the new year, Shellie Gudgeon hopped on a boat on a sunny afternoon with a handful of people to tour the Gorge Waterway, cataloguing illegally moored boats.
The small group counted 24 in total. At least three were sunken and four had people living on them.
The majority of the boats were in decent condition, noted Gudgeon, but some were a downright eyesore, leaking oil and fuel into the water. One boat had 10 to 15 feet of debris piled onto every inch possible.
“Boating is a privilege, it’s not a right and I think that’s important to recognize,” said Gudgeon, a former councillor with the City of Victoria.
“If we don’t follow the regulations of our community and the civil society, this could become a very dangerous situation.”
A number of derelict boats and floating vessels have been permanently anchored off the Selkirk Trestle near Banfield Park for a number of years, sparking complaints about leaking sewage, oil, fuel, noise and garbage from frustrated area residents like Gudgeon.
In an effort to address the issue, city council passed a bylaw in October 2014 that prohibits overnight anchoring, but the portion of water that was experiencing all the problems is owned by the province.
In order to implement the bylaw, the city applied for a license of occupation from the province so it could occupy the land — a license that took a year to receive.
Even though it now has that license in hand, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said the city has to check if anything has happened during the last year that could change the bylaw and their ability to enforce it.
“We are doing our due diligence to make sure that we have a bylaw that doesn’t violate any new laws or court decisions that would have commenced now in the year between passing our bylaw and being able to enforce it,” said Helps, who’s also feeling frustrated by how long the process has taken.
“There is no timeline, but I can assure you and the public this is a very active file. We hope to be able to move ahead soon but we also don’t want to break the law.”
Frustrated citizens have accused the city of dragging its heels when it comes to removing the boats. Helps said she understands that’s what it may look like from the public’s point of view, but the city was not anticipating it would take a year to receive the license from the province.
The responsibility to clean up the gorge also rests with the Coast Guard, she noted, with whom the city’s fire chief has been working with to clean up some of the oil in the water. One of the sunken boats was removed on Friday and took an entire day.
In the meantime, some residents are taking matters into their own hands. As a gift to the city, the president of Ralmax Properties offered to remove derelict boats from the waterway for free, but Helps said the matter is complicated.
The Veins of Life Watershed Authority (VOLWS) is also getting involved. The community-based environmental organization began in 1994 as a father-and-son cleanup effort on the Gorge Waterway. The debris removal campaign quickly gained momentum with hundreds of volunteers donating their time to make the water clean again.
Since some property owners moor their boats in the Gorge because it’s cheaper than a marina, the organization is working with boat owners to find a solution
“We have dealt with them in the past by raising the money necessary and paying moorage at a marine for up to a year,” wrote VOLWS in a Facebook post that urges residents to help people living on boats that have nowhere to go.
“If their vessel boat needs maintenance to bring it up to a standard where they can get into a marina let’s help them fix and pay for the repairs. We have even found better boats in the past and just donated. Find them moorage and offer to pay up to one year to help.
Several photos of the boats have been posted on the page to find out who they belong to so they can be moved or disposed. The organization is also calling for volunteers to help with the process.