BOATS SIT in their slips Friday at the San Leandro Marina.
BOATS SIT in their slips Friday at the San Leandro Marina. (Aric Crabb - Staff)
SAN LEANDRO — Every few weeks or so, the harbor begins to silt up, the water turns murky and the boats are left stranded in the sand.

It's a byproduct of the San Leandro Marina, and it happens when it can't be dredged.

The city is facing the enormous cost of dredging the

2-mile channel from the harbor to the San Francisco Bay. But unless the yacht harbor gets some help from generous federal subsidies, the deficit could continue to grow and the city may be forced to scrap the marina altogether.

Since the marina was built 45 years ago, politicians have promised it would pay its own way. Now, they are starting to take a serious look at what the future might really hold.

"It's the crown jewel of the city," said Mayor Tony Santos, who once suggested the harbor be given away because of its huge liabilities. "But I just think it's really time, in my opinion, for the city to come to grips with that area and consider alternatives."

The problem has gotten so bad, officials say, that the city will be sending out letters this week letting berthers know they are docking at their own risk. The letters also will be sent to other marinas in the region so that visitors can be aware of the problem as well.

In the past six months, boats have been getting stuck at the mouth of the harbor, said marina supervisor Del Marie Snadgraff. When the water is at extremely low tide, boat ownersmight have to sit in the water for nearly five hours before either the tide picks back up again or a good Samaritan comes to the rescue. That was the case earlier this month when the Blue Dolphin got stuck in the harbor.

But city officials say most of the boats that get stuck in the silt are from outside the area, and their owners aren't as aware of the marina's problems.

For four decades, the city has worked with the federal government to maintain the marina channel. The process must be repeated every four to five years at a price that has skyrocketed from $120,000 in 1968 to more than $4 million.

But since the Army Corps of Engineers stopped dredging recreational harbors several years ago so it could concentrate on commercial harbors, such as the Port of Oakland, the city has been left to pick up the tab — which it can't handle.

The city received $675,000 in federal funding in 2005 to dredge the Marina. Another $500,000 was earmarked for that purpose last year, but most of the money never materialized because of federal budget cuts.

City officials hoped twice before that a hotel and business conference center planned for the Marina would increase city revenue, but that dream has been lost as well.

While the Marina generates about $1 million in annual revenue, the money is only enough to cover day-to-day operations, Balkaldin said. Primary beneficiaries are 260 yacht owners,

80 percent of whom do not live in San Leandro.

"It really has become a policy question," Balkaldin said. "Where does the City Council want to spend its money?"

But unless the city receives some type of federal funding, City Council members have been saying their hands are tied.

The Marina mainly is used by residents for recreation along the shoreline, and it is unclear how much the city and residents would benefit from the Marina in coming years.

Already the city is starting to look at other options.

At a recent City Council meeting, council members lowered the Marina on a list of priorities that the city will take to Washington, D.C., in March to lobby for funding.

In February 2006, the ad hoc committee that discusses issues relating to the marina was converted into a standing committee, showing the change in momentum from developing the marina to now considering alternatives.

And there have been rumors that if the city can't work out a deal to pump out the dredged muck, there may soon come a time when the marina is no longer known by its name.

Ultimately, Santos said, that is a decision city officials won't be able to make on their own.

"What the future direction is going to be is a question that the community has to answer," he said.

Martin Ricard is a general assignment reporter who also covers San Leandro. He can be reached at

mricard@dailyreviewonline.com.