SAN LEANDRO -- Patricia Sherwood and her crew -- a pair of parakeets and a hoary, dreadlocked cat named Morka -- share a modest cabin on Sabrina, a 26-foot sailboat that she's docked at the San Leandro Marina for 14 years.

Life aboard Sabrina is tranquil, with prime weather and sunsets worthy of a postcard. And it's thrifty -- for less than $400 a month, berthers like Sherwood can have a roof overhead and a deck underfoot at waterfront accommodations on San Francisco Bay.

But there's a problem lying just below Sabrina's hull: a relentlessly rising bed of silt brought in by the tides.

Mother Nature wants her mud flat back.

San Leandro can't afford moving the muck to keep the harbor operational, and it's estimated that Sherwood and about 40 other "liveaboard" marina residents have two or three years before they'll be forced to sail for less muddy waters.

Marinas don't come cheap, and while other communities around the bay have been able to keep boating operations afloat despite tight times, San Leandro has a bigger challenge because of a two-mile long channel necessary to connect the harbor to deeper waters.

Officials still are discussing what will eventually become of the harbor. Last fall, a city committee advanced a plan to keep the docks for as long as feasible, then turn it into an aquatic park. That would mean islands and amenities to attract plants and wildlife, a boardwalk and vista areas for pedestrians, but waterways only suitable for canoes, kayaks and other small craft.

Harbor's future

Sherwood is not even sure her boat could go anywhere if it had to move.

"I don't know what I'll do," she said, dabbing a tear. "I have no clue. It's terrible, and I'm not going to think about it. I feel like I've just been dumped on."

The fate of the boat harbor is tied to a larger vision for 40 acres of the marina that includes a 200-room hotel, office complex, retail shops, 188 residential units, two new restaurants, a library and a community center.

The city and developer Cal-Coast are working out an exclusive negotiating agreement that is scheduled to go to the City Council around March.

At previous meetings, speakers have expressed a desire to keep at least some of the boats. It's a pretty universal sentiment -- officials and the developer acknowledge that a harbor makes the area more desirable but say it's simply no longer a fiscally viable option.

When the marina was created in 1963, then-Mayor Jack Maltester used his considerable clout in Washington, D.C., to get federal funding for the early dredges.

"You didn't need a hell of a lot of arguments," he told the Daily Review in 1996. "These people were friends of mine."

Officials were caught up in creating something worthy of civic pride, Maltester said, and dredging costs were underestimated. Environmental laws that would add millions to the cost didn't yet exist.

Funding dilemma

Since then, intensive lobbying has secured money for much of the work, with the last full dredge in 2001 and a partial dredge in 2009. The boat basin itself hasn't been mucked out since 1997, and the city has always picked up that tab.

But now funding sources have dried up, said Cynthia Battenberg, San Leandro's business development manager.

Since Hurricane Katrina, federal dollars have been going to levees and projects aimed at public safety, she said. Commercial harbors also can find funding, but San Leandro isn't home to anything but pleasure craft.

"There's no money for recreational harbors," she said.

Mayor Stephen Cassidy added that earmark spending for specific local projects was eliminated when Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 2010.

Oliver Campbell, an air traffic controller at nearby Oakland International Airport who has lived on his yacht for six years, doesn't think the city is trying hard enough. He said he can't think of a better investment for San Leandro than keeping the harbor alive.

"I coined the phrase, that this is the 'jewel of the city,' " he said. "When I hear other people say that, and then talk about getting rid of the harbor, it makes me choke."

Campbell, who often cruises his 60-foot yacht and is familiar with many bay marinas, said other cities know what they have in a boat harbor. He pointed to the San Jose community of Alviso, where a boat ramp and piers opened in 2010 amid boosters talking about it one day becoming the "Sausalito of the South Bay."

"Everyone is doing something, and we're trying to close this," he said. "This is what sets the city apart from everywhere else. They want a shoreline? The whole damned bay is a shoreline."

He said the city turns a blind eye to the potential of the harbor, otherwise officials wouldn't balk at allocating dollars to keep it running.

"Then boaters will come and revenue will go up," he said. "Build it and they will come, but only if you build it right. Don't build something stupid -- that's no way to make money."

San Leandro did a study of other bay marinas in 2005 and found that all needed subsidies to stay afloat. And there's a big difference in cost for San Leandro, said Battenberg, because of the two-mile channel that needs to be excavated to keep the harbor connected to the Bay at a cost of about $1.5 million to $2 million annually.

"We did not find any other marina that had more than a quarter mile of dredging that they were responsible for," said Battenberg, who added that despite that advantage, no marina they looked at turned a profit.

"If citizens want to keep their harbor, they have to let the city know they are willing to pay an assessment, or have the city spend its money on the harbor rather than other areas," she said.

Public opinion

The city conducted a voter survey in 2007 to find out if people would be willing to pass a parcel tax to keep the marina. It found that while residents like the boats, less than half were willing to pass a tax, which would require a two-thirds vote.

"We all enjoy the Marina and wish for the boat harbor to remain," wrote Cassidy in an email. "But the majority of San Leandrans wish for it to be economically sustainable and not become a drain on our strained city budget."

The 2007 survey backs up Cassidy's sentiment. Only 2 percent of those polled said closure of the boat marina is a main concern, with the biggest issues being education, growth, development and crime.

Liveaboards share those concerns, Campbell said. They want to see growth and development at the Marina, and would like bustling restaurants and shops to replace fenced-off, blighted and cat-infested properties, such as the former boat maintenance shop, or site of the old Blue Dolphin, once the hottest restaurant in town.

They want to see this jewel of San Leandro polished, but want to live there, too.

Most harbors in the bay accept liveaboards, but are restricted to using 10 percent of the berths for that purpose. As a result, waiting lists can be long and private harbors that have available slips are considerably more expensive.

And besides, said Campbell and Sherwood, they and other liveaboards consider themselves San Leandro residents, and want to keep it that way.

"A lot of people, and at the end of the day," Campbell said, "they're fighting for their homes."

Contact Eric Kurhi at 510-293-2473. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.