Bay and the two Marin Islands, about 2.5 miles away.
Traditional funding streams have all but run dry, and with-
out 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 neighbor-
hood 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 fring-
ing 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 con-
taminated 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-
“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 ear-
marks 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
Without any alternative
funding source in place, the clock
is ticking on the canal as more
silt trickles in each year.
Opposite: Canal docks
with Mount Tamalpais
in the background. This
page from top: Bay mud
can be seen as the canal
exits into the bay; Jerry
McNulty pilots the