Stockton Is BIG For Boaters

By Ryck Lydecker

Deep in the heart of Delta Country, a city founded on the California Gold Rush reclaims its waterfront, and that means big payoffs for cruising boaters.

If you couldn't get dock space last April for the world-famous Asparagus Festival on the waterfront of Stockton, California, there may still be time to book a transient slip for "Stocktoberfest," October 8. But you'd better hurry. The city's new guest docks at the rebuilt and reborn downtown waterfront in the heart of California's Delta country are a popular cruising destination. Whether it's an organized trip like a U.S. Power Squadrons Delta Cruise or a classic boat owners' gathering like the annual Stephens Rendezvous, or a high-powered charity fundraiser on the order of the Big Cat Poker Run, boaters are rediscovering Stockton. And now they have much needed transient slip space to visit this venerable inland port city as the Golden State unveiled its latest Boating Infrastructure Grant (BIG) project last year.

Photo of Fremont Channel transient boat slipsThe protected waters of the Fremont Channel allows transient boats to tie-up Mediterranean style.

Founded as a steamboat landing to serve fortune seekers during the mid-19th century California Gold Rush, the city at the head of the 78-mile shipping channel from San Francisco Bay had become a gritty industrial port surrounded by rich farmland a century later.

"When I was growing up around the Delta, Stockton was a pretty rough-and-tumble agricultural town and there was nothing but run-down industrial property surrounding the downtown waterfront," reports Bryan Dove, a Delta native who represents BoatUS in California and the Pacific Northwest. "Stockton fell on pretty hard times in the 1970s and '80s, but that's all changed now that the city remodeled the entire waterfront. One of the prettiest sights to see is when Stockton Sailing Club racers ride the prevailing westerlies right into the downtown at the end of a race."

Winds Of Change

Today, Stockton visitors and locals alike have their choice of attractions — like a hockey game at an indoor arena fronting the Fremont Channel; an outdoor concert at Weber Point Park, which is bounded by water on three sides; and an Oakland Athletics farm team game at the new baseball stadium facing Stockton Channel. Or they can just explore the downtown with its restaurants, shopping, and historic buildings, all being revitalized in a long-term community redevelopment project.

Increasingly, those visitors are coming by boat, some from as far away as San Francisco and others from closer cities and towns along the thousand miles of eminently explorable waterways formed by the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and their tributaries. While most boaters may not be aware of it, the initial funding for the transient docks they now enjoy in Stockton came from federal boating fuel tax dollars that go back into their favorite pastime through what is known as "the BIG Program."

Photo of transient docks fronting Stockton California's arenaAdditional transient docks fronting the city's new arena.

The federal infrastructure grant, roughly $1,384,000 administered through the California Dept. of Boating and Waterways, provided about half the cost of the guest docks and just a small portion of the total project cost. But it injected essential seed money to get this cruising revival underway, according to Ron Cook of the Stockton Economic Redevelopment Department.

"The city had built a marina on the Stockton Channel with 180 leased slips in the 1980s, but it had fallen into disrepair and had to be decommissioned in 2004," Cook explains. "The channel comes right into downtown and everyone understood it was a major resource for the rebirthing of the waterfront, but we had to figure out what the community's needs were."

The city's Erin Mettler adds, "Actually, the Stockton Waterfront Revival Committee struggled with how best to reclaim our waterfront for over 10 years. You have to remember the situation that they had to deal with on the waterfront. It was deserted. It was contaminated. It was an industrial wasteland."

In fact, she says, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated some parcels of waterfront property Superfund sites, "meaning the land was so contaminated from industrial pollutants that no private developer would dare touch it," Mettler explains. A large portion of the overall marina and waterfront promenade revitalization costs, about $30 million, had to come from other sources of city and federal funds, augmented by cleanup litigation settlements in the form of payments from past property owners, which were used to dig up and treat contaminated soil.

Ultimately, in addition to the major bricks-and-mortar amenities like the baseball stadium and indoor sports arena, it led to a complete rebuilding of the Stockton Downtown Marina. At a cost of $23 million, that facility now provides seasonal slips for local boaters. "But we also saw that transient docks provided a wonderful opportunity to bring people into the downtown by boat for short stays of up to a week," Cook says. "Permanent slips were certainly part of the program and the Delta already has dozens of excellent marinas, but we have limited transient slips near Stockton and none downtown so the BIG grant became a priority for us."

Design work for the guest docks began in 2007, construction started the following year, and the facilities opened in October 2009, with space for up to 150 boats, just in time for Stocktoberfest. Last year marked its first full season welcoming transients who booked 100 percent of slip space for both the Asparagus Festival and Fourth of July.

"That's when we got a real sense of the success these transient facilities were going to be for Stockton," Cook adds. "This is where cruising boaters wanted to be."

Catering To Cruisers

The Boating Infrastructure Grant (BIG) program funnels federal gas tax monies that recreational boaters pay at the pump back to the states — in the case of Stockton, through the California Boating and Waterways Department — to build facilities specifically for transient boats. Nationally, the BIG program has put more than $121 million back into boating since Congress created the program in 1998. Those federal dollars have generated a whopping additional $126.4 million in non-federal matching funds, well in excess of the 25-percent match required and a strong indication of the program's acceptance across the country. The BIG program is a key element in the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, now due for reauthorization by Congress (see sidebar).

All 50 states have put BIG grant monies to work building or rebuilding mooring fields, transient slips, harbors of refuge, breakwaters, bulkheads, dinghy docks, and, as in Stockton, lineal dockage where boats can tie up by the stern, Mediterranean style, because the area is well protected. Related facilities like restrooms, fuel docks, electrical power pedestals, water and sewage utilities, and recycling stations can be added using BIG funds as well as pumpout stations and private aids to navigation.

To be eligible for BIG funding, projects must be located on water bodies deep enough for boats 26 feet and longer to navigate at a minimum six-foot depth at low tide. A project may include costs for one-time dredging to provide access, but not routine maintenance. As in the Stockton project, the goal is to give people traveling by boat access to shore-side shopping, restaurants, visitor attractions, chandleries, repair services, and other conveniences boaters need. That, in turn, benefits waterfront economies — a major selling point for potential grant applicants and exactly what Congress had in mind when it created the program, which BoatUS steered through the legislative process on Capitol Hill at the time.

Communities like Stockton can apply for additional funding once a project is completed, and many have taken a phased approach to adding transient boater facilities over the years. Cook says that while the new guest docks already have full-service utilities, plus sewage pumpout equipment, more than adequate for full occupancy, the city may want to add a fuel dock later.

"The nearest fuel is only two-and-a-half miles away, though, and since we're basically at the head of navigation here, boaters can fill up both coming and going from Stockton," Cook reports. "We do hope to add more transient docks as demand increases, expand restroom facilities for boaters, and perhaps open a ship's store, but all of that depends on the health of the economy in the future." For now, thanks to the Boating Infrastructure Grant program, boaters are sprouting up in this historic Gold Rush city in the heart of Delta Country like, well, fresh asparagus.

— Published: August/September 2011

Boater Dollars Float BIG Grants

More than $13.5 million in boater- and angler-paid excise taxes are going to work to provide transient facilities for cruisers in 11 states this year through the Boating Infrastructure Grant (BIG) program. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awarded grants for 16 projects in 2011, to construct docks, marina slips, dinghy landings, pumpout stations, mooring fields, and other facilities designed to serve cruising boaters.

Photo of the historic Hotel StocktonLong-term, more transient docks could be added in front of the historic Hotel Stockton now under renovation and dating from 1910.

"The Boating Infrastructure Grant program is one of the many ways we support access and provide quality outdoor opportunities for the nation's recreational anglers and boaters," said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in announcing the grants last March. "These grants also spur major construction projects, creating jobs and providing much-needed economic benefits," he added.

At the same time, the service also released approximately $2.7 million to 27 states, commonwealths, and territories to fund smaller projects designed to serve transient vessels. Those grants are capped at $100,000 and bring the total for 2011 to $16.2 million. Nationally, new BIG projects range from dockage to accommodate 30 transient vessels on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in Alabama to new floating docks for 53 transient boat slips on Lake Erie in Cleveland, Ohio; space for 80 transient vessels on the Hudson River that will give cruising boaters easy access to New York City; and state-of-the-art floats with upgraded amenities for 54 transients, replacing two dilapidated docks at Anacortes, Washington, on Puget Sound.


Congress To Reauthorize Trust Fund

The Boating Infrastructure Grant program is just one part of a number of important initiatives that boaters and anglers have supported for over a quarter of a century through the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, now due for reauthorization by Congress. The trust fund, which is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Coast Guard, provides about $650 million annually to the watery world that boaters care about.

Technically, the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund expires September 30 of this year and if not reauthorized, funding could decrease by about 80 percent, effectively crippling state boating programs, including boat-ramp maintenance and development projects, boating safety education and enforcement efforts, sewage pumpout grants, and funding for many state boat registration and titling programs.

Here are some highlights from the period 2004 to 2009:

  • 3,000 Boating access sites operated and maintained
  • 2,355 Boat sewage pumpout stations
  • 1,972,368 Hours of state on-the-water safety enforcement
  • 12,748 Search-and-rescue recovery cases
  • 70,000 Acres of wetlands habitat restored and managed
  • 3.8 Billion fish stocked

BoatUS is part of a coalition of organizations working to see that the trust fund is reauthorized. Expect more news as the reauthorization progresses in BoatUS Magazine and at


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