Another Week, Another Project affecting the Delta

Another Week, Another Project affecting the Delta

The Coast Guard is reviewing a permit to build a new two-lane bridge over Middle River, replacing the existing Woodward Island ferry on the Middle River. The ferry is currently a 5 MPH zone just north of Ski Beach.
File photo from Quincy Engineering, Sacramento

As boaters who use Middle River as one of our local boating highways, is there a cause for concern?

There is some good news with a bridge. The cable ferry can be very dangerous. The bridge is high enough (30 feet at the center span) for most boats (except sail boats and large barges with cranes) to pass underneath without waiting for a bridge opening. It is not the normal path for sail boats.

There will be two years during summer months until October 31 of periodic 1-week waterway closures.

My main boating concern is that this project, like all others the state plans, fails to show an understanding of the esthetics of the Delta for boaters. What worries me is that, like many Delta projects including the BDCP/California WaterFix/Delta Tunnels, the project plan was developed by a group called ICF International in Sacramento. This group seems to lack a real understanding of the value of the Delta.

So I was wondering . . . what makes the Delta special?

Just because there are similar bridges here and there in the Delta, does that mean it is all right to put more bridges up just anywhere? It is similar to other project write-ups I’ve seen when I thought that just because there are rock levees in places, it doesn’t mean that an entire Delta with only rock levees would give the same visual experience.

Middle River is a more vegetated river, a prettier area. We want to make sure scenic areas of the Delta maintain their vegetation and boating enjoyment.

Riding down a nicely vegetated slough

Look! A turtle on a log in the tules

All projects that affect the Delta should be reviewed by people who boat on the Delta. These guys need to go anchor out at Mildred Island and watch the sun set over Mt. Diablo. The need to take a ski boat zipping through the sloughs up and down Middle River and enjoy the scenery. There is the popular Ski Beach nearby the proposed bridge. It would be preferable if note was taken about Ski Beach site and a discussion about whether the bridge would wreck the esthetics there.

We took our ski boat up there a few weeks ago and concluded there isn’t a real issue with the bridge and Ski Beach, but I wish people writing these project plans for the Delta would research first and comment on it.

In addition, is there justification for spending our tax payer money on an expensive bridge? The main use for the bridge is going to be to build the Delta Tunnels. That project should have to pay for a significant portion of this bridge.

For these reasons, I think it makes sense for people to send in comments on the new bridge. Perhaps say they appreciate boating safety being considered. But the fact that there are bridges in the Delta shouldn’t necessarily mean bridges should be installed everywhere.

And what about the costs?

Comments are due May 18th

Email to:

Or send US Mail to:
Eleventh Coast Guard District
Coast Guard Island, Bldg 50-2,
Alameda, CA 94501-5100

More Details

Why a bridge?

My first question (always suspicious about the motives behind any project in the Delta) was why are they doing it? Looking at the map, the bridge will provide access to Woodward Island, one of the many farmed islands in the Delta. Woodward is just south of the railroad track, with Old River on the west and Middle River on the east. The Twin Sloughs runs south of it. The stated purpose is both replacing the old ferry to provide 24×7 emergency access.

Hmm. The island isn’t inhabited. However, after doing more digging I was told that the island is where the East Bay Municipal Water District (EBMUD) pipelines cross. If those broke, they’d need to quickly get equipment and workers to that island. Having a road also helps get trucks to the island to assist with levee repairs (although often levee repairs are done by barges).

There’s a bigger picture. There is a long-term goal to replace all of the old cable ferries. The cable-guided ferry has been in operation since 1936 in one form or another. It is one of five ferries still operating in the Delta. The old ferries are falling apart, dangerous, and provide limited access.

How will it affect boaters?

The good news is that the plans are for a bridge that will be 30 feet high in the center and have seven spans. That means it is large enough for even large yachts to navigate through. Sailboats will be restricted, but a sailboat cannot go under the Middle River Railroad Bridge, and that bridge typically does not open.

The other good news is that it should no longer be a 5 MPH zone. That’s nice for boaters. Although caution should still be taken if planning to tow a skier, wakeboarder, or raft through the opening. There have been accidents and even deaths caused by mishaps with wakeboarders and even jet skiers around bridge pilings. That is why the Orwood Railroad Bridge and Middle River Railroad Bridge are 5 MPH zones.

Regardless, a bridge with pilings isn’t the hazard that a cable ferry can pose. In the ’60s, several Liberty High teens lost their lives when they zoomed through the ferry area on Middle River, ignoring the 5 MPH zone. The cable ferry was in operation so that the cable was taunt and at boat height. It was quite tragic.

While the new bridge will not have an operational opening, the center span can be removed by a crane for the rare requirement of getting a large construction barge with high equipment under, or other need.

That sounds like all good news – right?

But still, an expensive bridge just in case some pipelines break?

Wouldn’t it be cheaper and more cost effective to add shut-off valves in the pipes (if they aren’t there already) and the State could helicopter equipment in for a one-time fix as fast and much cheaper than a permanent bridge?

Looking at the map, I realized that Woodward Island is also the location of one of the proposed Delta Tunnel shafts. There is currently no way to get the ongoing column of large trucks and earth-moving equipment to the shaft site needed to construct the tunnels. A large, sturdy bridge that doesn’t need to open for boats would certainly solve that problem! Ahah!

Yet, after further checking, I found out that the project started before the Delta Tunnels project. Here’s a January 2008 article: Ferries a dying breed”. That article talks about the $40 million worth of crops and cost to taxpayers that occurred when the Jones Tract levee broke and flooded the island. It sounds like their justification is that, the way the bridge is being constructed, it would be easier to get trucks over and still can move barges around for levee repairs on Woodward Island.

But that argument doesn’t hold water when the long-term plan for the state is to let salt water intrude into the Delta. Woodward Island wouldn’t be farmable at that point, so that negates the need to be able to keep Woodward Island levees repaired.

What about funding?

This seems like a pretty expensive way to go. In the 2008 article, it was reported that the project then could cost as much as $10 million, primarily funded through federal money. The rest of the cost will be picked up by the county, the island’s reclamation district and the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which owns pipelines running across the island.

If almost all of the reason is to provide emergency access to EBMUD’s pipeline, that seems expensive and seems EBUD should foot a larger proportion of the bill.

According to the Central Valley Business Times article last month, the Coast Guard says the bridge will not have a significant impact on the environment.


Comments are due May 18th

Email to:

Or send US Mail to:
Eleventh Coast Guard District
Coast Guard Island, Bldg 50-2,
Alameda, CA 94501-5100

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