Federally authorized in 1918, the San Rafael Federal Navigation Channel runs from the San Francisco Bay into the heart of northern Marin County. In early 2023, the Channel was fully dredged for the first time in 20 years.
The last full dredging of the Channel was completed by US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in 2002, and current measurements in the Channel measure navigation depths at only 20-40% of their federally authorized levels. A partial dredge was completed by USACE in 2011.
The San Rafael Channel is an urban waterfront and provides essential services to more than just recreational and commercial users:
- Critical Public Safety Operations: The San Rafael Police and Fire boats operate 3 rescue boats on the Channel, responding to more than 1,380 water incidents within the last 15 years. A key firefighting defense, the Channel's turning basin is a designated water pick up in fighting hillside fires. Shoaling of the Channel and shallow depths has currently eliminated the use of this pick up point—lengthening firefighting response times.
- Regional Economic Engine: The Channel-adjacent East San Rafael business district generates 66% of the City’s sales tax revenue. More than 130 businesses registered within 400 ft of the Channel, including many marine-dependent businesses, grossed $191 million in taxable sales in 2017. Should this area be adversely affected by the further shoaling of the Channel, funding of all City of San Rafael operations will be at risk.
- Real Flood Risk and Damage: More than 12,000 residents live within 0.5 miles of the federal Channel, including in the most densely populated FEMA floodzone in the County. Seven stormwater pump stations discharge stormwater directly into the Channel, and rely on deep waters to keep stormwater flowing into the bay. The FEMA approved Marin County Local Hazard Mitigation Plan includes Channel dredging as a high priority project.
The San Rafael Channel Association (SRCA) is a non-profit group representing waterfront businesses and residents actively involved in the dredging effort. The City has been working closely with SRCA, the County, Congressman Huffman's office, and the Army Corps of Engineers to secure federal funding for a full Channel dredging.
Federal funding in 2022
In late May 2021 the Fiscal Year 2022 President’s Budget was released and included $6,750,000 towards dredging of the San Rafael Channel. The President’s Budget, issued by the Executive Branch, is the first step in the FY 2022 budgeting process for Army Corps of Engineers projects -- which will be finalized in early 2022. The Federal Fiscal Year 2022 runs from October 1, 2021 to September 30, 2022.
This means that should the final FY 2022 USACE Work Plan include the recommended allocations from the President's Budget (as is expected): the Channel will be dredged in summer 2022 when the next environmental window opens in June. This is great news – this is the first concrete guarantee that dredging will happen this next summer.
As of now USACE expects that a full dredging can occur with a budget of $6,750m.
Federal funding in 2021
In January 2021, USACE released its 2021 Work Plan for projects during the FY 2021 cycle – including all dredging activities summer/fall 2021. San Rafael was not funded in this cycle.
Though the dredging target date has been delayed a year, the Corps’ team continued their work on the design and environmental testing that is required before dredging of the channel can occur. San Rafael was awarded $1.378 in 2020 for this pre-dredge work. Testing results will remain effective for regulatory purposes through 2023.
Federal funding in 2020
In March 2020, the San Rafael Channel was awarded $1,378,000 in federal funds for the first step in dredging: the environmental testing and preliminary design for full dredging.
Stephen Acker | Public Works Senior Management Analyst