Houseboat mired in river, limbo

Structure sinking into Lake River in Ridgefield; who will resolve situation remains murky

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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photoA houseboat in the Lake River near the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge is partially sunk, months after the vessel that towed and left it there sank.

(/The Columbian)

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RIDGEFIELD — When state officials went to survey the site of a sunken boat on the Lake River near Ridgefield this week, they found themselves wrestling an even bigger problem.

An abandoned houseboat moored along the bank of the river — towed there illegally by the vessel that had sunk — is now sinking, too. The houseboat sits partially submerged, its roof gutters on one end nearly touching the river. Water flows freely through an open sliding door on the side of the house, lapping against a deck chair sitting next to it.

“It’s terrible,” said Sgt. Fred Neiman of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office marine unit. “It’s just one of those things where I wish there was something we could do with it.”

Months after the derelict houseboat and the sunken 32-foot sailboat first caught the attention of local and state authorities, it remains unclear who will resolve the still-murky situation. Both vessels have foundered in limbo while a financial dispute played out between their owner, Lance Balderree, and their previous home, nearby McCuddy’s Ridgefield Marina.

Meanwhile, officials appear to have lost track of the ailing boat. The broken vessel had apparently drifted in the four months since it sank near the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in March.

“We are going to remove it once it’s been located,” said Abbey Corzine, a communications specialist with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

The DNR typically handles small environmental threats through its Derelict Vessel Removal Program — a program under which this boat clearly falls, Corzine said. The U.S. Coast Guard stepped in early on to minimize that threat, removing fuel and other possible pollutants before the boat sank.

The wayward houseboat? That’s another matter entirely, with seemingly no one exactly sure of how to solve it.

The sheriff’s office lacks the equipment to move it. The state Department of Ecology doesn’t have jurisdiction in a case that’s not considered a major environmental hazard. The marina may look at recovering the house, but hasn’t decided if it’s salvageable, said McCuddy’s co-owner Mike McCuddy.

That leaves the DNR to take care of it.

“We would have to,” Corzine said. “We have an obligation to protect state-owned aquatic lands and protect other boaters from a possible navigation hazard.”

Here’s the problem: “There’s no funding set aside for the removal of these structures,” Corzine said. That means the money would likely come out of the agency’s operating budget.

The houseboat had been docked at McCuddy’s Ridgefield Marina for years before unpaid moorage fees caught up with owner Balderree. About to be evicted, he instead towed the houseboat upstream and out of the marina. But the vessel that pulled the house soon sank to the bottom of the Lake River.

After trying to resolve unpaid fines and fees, Balderree apparently gave up and abandoned the house, McCuddy said. The sheriff’s office hasn’t had contact with the owner since March, according to Neiman.

So now what?

Mike Armstrong manages the Ridgefield location of McCuddy’s Marina. He’s not particularly worried about the environmental risk of the partially submerged house, which sits within view of an entrance to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

Armstrong might take matters into his own hands on the sunken vessel. He said he’s floated to the area himself, using an echo sounder to try to locate it on the bottom of the river.

Lake River flows north on a relatively calm current. Armstrong suspects the vessel hasn’t gone far.

“This isn’t the Columbia River,” Armstrong said. “The Columbia River would have rolled that boat to Astoria by now.”

The DNR is currently searching for the vessel, Corzine said.

As for the house, McCuddy’s may consider bringing it back to the marina and selling what it could, McCuddy said. But if the house is too damaged, the marina will leave it to the DNR to remove it, he said.

The wood-sided houseboat currently leans against the east bank of the river, an outside deck disappearing into the water nearly halfway down. Some furniture is visible through wide-open doors and windows — at least one of them broken. A loose ladder is on the roof.

The house has likely been looted since it was left there, Neiman said.

The DNR hasn’t acted on the house yet, and must wait on the marina or the owner for the go-ahead, according to Corzine. The house is not considered a navigable vessel, and therefore doesn’t fall under the agency’s normal purview, she said. But DNR will act if it needs to, she added.

Until then, the water-logged house waits.

“If it was an abandoned recreational boat, it would have been taken care of long ago,” Neiman said. “It’s not.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541 or eric.florip@columbian.com.