Posted February 13, 2020
After years of neglect and lack of funding, the shallowing San Rafael Canal is closer to being fully dredged for the first time in more than 17 years.
This week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allocated $1.3 million in its latest work plan this month to design the dredging of the San Rafael Creek.
“The canal is a vital artery of San Rafael allowing for flood control, public safety, transportation and commerce,” said Nadine Urciuoli, president of the San Rafael Channel Association and general manager of Helmut’s Marine Service, which is on the creek. “With the last full dredging taking place in 2002, we have been growing fearful that our waterway would soon silt in past the point of no return. We are thankful for the continued efforts and are eager to have a navigable canal in the near future.”
The allocation will be used to design the dredging project and assess the condition of the creek. Jay Kinberger, a U.S. Army Corps regional official, said the agency aims to have the design completed by November. The funding to actually dredge the canal will still need to be secured. The current project estimate is $12 million, though the studies may change that figure.
“This is in line with our past practice of getting a project shovel ready and then being able to execute when the actual construction dollars are allocated,” Kinberger wrote in an email.
The San Rafael Canal was fully dredged in 2002 and partially dredged in 2011. Through the years, storms have carried sediment into the channel and shoaled it to depths as shallow as 2 feet. The federal standard depth is 6 feet for the inner channel and 8 feet at the outer channel, according to Bill Guerin, San Rafael’s public works director.
“There are several businesses that maintain pleasure craft and we’re finding that some of the larger boats coming into San Rafael for maintenance are running aground due to the high silt levels in the channel,” Guerin said. “It’s going to get worse over time because the channel is going to fill in.”
The shoaling of the creek presents several public safety hazards as well. Nine of the city’s pumps flow into the creek and the San Rafael police and fire department sometimes respond to incidents on the water.
Anna Belanger, office manager for the Lowrie Yacht Harbor along the northern bank of the San Rafael Creek, said while there are impacts to businesses, her main concern is about the potential for flooding in the city and undermining the foundations of property along the creek. While she supports the funding to plan for the dredging, Belanger said the issue is critical enough that the Federal Emergency Management Agency should step in to perform emergency work.
“It’s a domino effect and it’s a simple solution: Keep the creek dredged,” Belanger said.
Lillian Trac, a waterfront resident since 2003, said she lives along a section of creek that was dredged in 2011. While that helped at the time, recent storms have brought in much more sediment. As a result, Trac has noticed a decline in the number of boats participating in the San Rafael Lighted Boat Parade this past December because of the shallow conditions.
“It used to be this amazing affair with 30 or more motorboats and sailboats participating,” Trac said. “This year I think there was one sailboat and the rest were motorboats because the sailboats have the deep keel.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is supposed to perform routine dredging to maintain proper channel depth every six to eight years under the River and Harbors Act. But the dredging project and others, such as work along the Petaluma River, have been left out of the corps’ annual work plan because of a lack of funding.
Also included in the Army Corps’ recent work plan is $9.7 million to dredge the flats and main channel of the Petaluma River. The flats near San Pablo Bay have not been dredged since 1998 and the channel has not been dredged since 2003, according to project manager Justin Yee.
Rep. Jared Huffman said he has been advocating for dredging allocations since being elected to Congress in 2012. He included seeking funds to dredge the canal among his campaign promises this election cycle.
Huffman said he took the Army Corps of Engineers commander and San Francisco district engineer Lt. Col. John Cunningham to tour the San Rafael Canal and the Petaluma River last fall.
“Local economies depend on ‘forgotten harbors’, like the Petaluma River and San Rafael Canal,” Huffman said. “I am thrilled that we will finally be able to address the recreational, commercial, and public safety problems that come from delayed dredging. The safety and viability of commercial and recreational traffic is the highest priority, and I thank the Army Corps for taking action on this urgent infrastructure need.”
After a lack of movement for so many years, Trac said she and her neighbors are thrilled that this first step is being taken.
“It’s a good start, but we hope it leads to better,” she said.