"It's confidential," said department spokeswoman, June Iljana.
Boating accident data that the Times analyzed were obtained from the U.S. Coast Guard, which obtained them from the department. The data included the date and specific locations of boating accidents.
But for the year 2000, the locations were missing in the Coast Guard data. When the Times asked the Boating and Waterways Department for the information under the California Public Records Act, the department's top lawyer, Joy Fisher, refused the request, claiming that the state harbor and navigation laws exempt the information from disclosure.
Fisher also asked the Coast Guard to stop making the information public.
That the department refuses to make accident location available to the public "is absolutely asinine," said Tom Newton, general counsel to the California Newspaper Publisher's Association.
"A boating accident is a public event. Taxpayer funds go to investigate it. There is noting private about it," Newton said. "A government entity that is supposed to protect the public is harming the public and using a questionable interpretation of the law to do so."
There is clearly a public need for the information, said Peter Scheer of the California First Amendment Coalition, an open
"The public has a significant interest in knowing about boating accidents and the location of boating accidents just as it does about information concerning car accidents," Scheer said. "It's the kind of data that a government agency would want to disseminate as far as possible but they are trying to suppress the data."
Fisher did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
In a June 5 letter to Times attorney Karl Olson, Fisher wrote that information in boating accident reports such as locations can be released only to "persons who have been affected by the accident or who represent people who have been affected by the accident."
The information is collected from affidavits that boaters involved in accidents fill out and from law enforcement reports.
In contrast, the Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies disclose the location of automobile accidents daily. The CHP reports the locations within minutes on its Web site.
Telling the public where boating accidents occur might lead boaters to slow down and drive more responsibly, said Sgt. Will Duke of the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office Marine Unit.
"It would make it safer if you and I know the same stuff," Duke said.
The boating department is funded through boating registrations, fuel taxes and other fees tapped from the state's $13 billion recreational boating industry.
"One way to look at it is that (disclosing accident locations) is bad for (the boating) business," said Cary Smith, president of the California Boating Safety Officers Association.
The release of accident locations on specific bodies of water, especially lakes, might cause people not to boat there, Smith said, adding that he agreed information should be publicly available.