Shallow Waters

THE PADDY WAGON, a 24-foot Skipjack fishing boat, sits in two feet of water outside the San Rafael Yacht Club. At the wheel is Jerry McNulty, a former commodore of the club and all-around competent skipper. He knew, at least, to park the boat here overnight; any trip to the upper reaches of the San Rafael Canal earlier in the morning would’ve been cut short. “At low tide, the chances of getting stuck are 100 percent,” he says.

Even now, the Paddy Wagon is at its low-water limit. McNulty turns the key, the engine comes to life, and the half-buried propeller churns up a smudgy black cloud that billows behind the boat. A pungent, sulfuric smell fills the air: bay mud. The boat slowly pulls off, leaving a putrid plume in its wake.

McNulty couldn’t have orchestrated it better if he’d tried. He helps lead a local group called Friends of the Canal, whose 150-or-so members hope to call attention to the importance of dredging San Rafael’s central waterway — not just up here at the yacht club, effectively the canal’s terminus, but all the way down to San Pablo Bay and the two Marin Islands, about 2.5 miles away. Traditional funding streams have all but run dry, and without significant local support, group members believe the canal could too.

“We’re at a crossroads, where if we don’t get together as a community and find a solution, there’s a good chance we could end up like Bahia,” says fellow Friends of the Canal member Sam Ferguson, referring to the Novato neighborhood whose lagoon filled with silt due to a lack of dredging. “It can happen, and I do think there’s a lack of belief that it can happen.”

Yet unlike Bahia and most other narrow channels fringing the bay, the San Rafael Canal was designated a federal waterway in 1919. This special distinction means the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pays to keep it navigable, and the corps has funded dredging of the canal 13 times since 1930, an average of once every 6.6 years — most recently in the winter of 2011–2012, at a cost of $1.4 million.

That’s just about when things started to go downhill, say McNulty and Ferguson. During this most recent dredge, not only did the corps fail to dredge the upper 40 percent or so of the canal due to a lack of funds for handling contaminated soils concentrated in and around the turning basin, just outside the yacht club, but it also dredged the remaining portion to a shallower depth than usual — five-and- a-half feet.

“We have to do our boat moves at high tide,” says Matt Butler, who runs the 160-slip San Rafael Yacht Harbor just down the canal from the yacht club, also within the area that hasn’t been dredged since 2002. “If you draw more than 24 inches of water, you’re going to have a hard time getting up the channel at low tide.” Outside the harbor the water is about three-and-a-half feet deep at zero tide, Butler says; ideally it’d be closer to six.

Despite the challenges posed by the incomplete dredge, something else happened in 2011 that sent even bigger ripples down the canal: a House-passed ban on federal earmarks that eliminated the mechanism through which the dredging was funded in both 2011 and 2002.

Today, without any alternative funding source in place, the clock is ticking on the canal as more silt trickles in each year, primarily through storm water runoff, and the canal gets ever shallower.

But businesses like Butler’s and boaters like Ferguson, who also owns a home on the water, have reason to be optimistic. A new, first-of-its-kind regional partnership is taking shape that could spell an answer to San Rafael’s dredging problems, and to those of a couple of North Bay neighbors.

Like the San Rafael Canal, the Petaluma River (actually a tidal slough) and the Napa River are federal waterways that have been dredged by the Army Corps of Engineers for decades. And they, too, have been impacted by the disappearance of dredging funds in recent years. These so-called shallow-draft waterways don’t have the clout to compete with a deep-draft port like Oakland for the corps’ attention, so they’ve lost out on whatever dredging funds have been allocated by Congress in the intervening years.

The idea behind the nascent regional partnership, explains Congressman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), who’s been angling for dredging funds since his election in 2013, is to elevate these North Bay waterways from a series of small-time jobs to a single, larger project with significant regional value. All three waterways — and potentially others as well — would be dredged together on a regular schedule, improving efficiencies and economies of scale. “This is the best alternative there is, I believe, short of getting some line-item appropriation that we will continue to fight for, but it may not happen in the time frame we need,” Huffman says.

Richard Landis, San Rafael’s Public Works administrative manager, says the city supports the idea, too. “The corps has been very clear that shallow-draft channels are a low priority,” he says. “This partnership seems to be the only chance of moving forward.”

In the works for about a year, the plan is still in its early stages, and many important details have yet to be decided — like the extent to which local governments will chip in. Yet the corps’ response to date has been encouraging. “They’ve very interested,” Huffman says. “There’s no other proposal like this anywhere in the country under development. This really would be new and interesting to the top brass at the Army Corps of Engineers.”

An independent consultant will spend time this summer developing a proposal for the corps. If it’s approved, dredging won’t commence any sooner than late 2018, says Dan St. John, director of public works and utilities for the City of Petaluma and de facto leader of the coalition.

By then the San Rafael Canal will likely have taken on at least another foot of mud, posing even greater challenges for boaters.

But David Wells, who owns 101 Surf Sports directly across the canal from Matt Butler’s harbor, says he’s one of the few who will get along just fine until then — the business rents kayaks and stand-up paddleboards that require inches, not feet, of water. And in the short term, dredging would actually hurt his business by keeping people off the water. Still, he says, it’s clear the present situation isn’t sustainable. “If banding all together makes money appear, then that’s good,” he says. “Having a more vibrant marine industry down here as a regional point of pride would, over the long term, serve us well.”

That collective benefit came starkly into view as the Paddy Wagon approached the yacht club and turning basin on its return from a brief trip down the canal. A small sailboat sat motionless in the water about 20 feet from shore, sails down: stranded in the same mud that nearly snagged McNulty’s boat a few hours before.

McNulty pulled up close and tossed a rope to the man aboard, who rigged it to his bow. Then the Paddy Wagon reversed course, towed its charge to deeper water, and set the boat free. Just another day on the San Rafael Canal.