Singapore. New Orleans. Shanghai.

Alviso?

Hoping to turn the sleepy community on San Jose's northern edge against San Francisco Bay into a bustling port, a coalition of South Bay government and business leaders has paid $360,000 for a consultant to study the idea's feasibility.

Backers envision ferry boats, shops and perhaps major economic development, along with a way to move supplies in case a major earthquake wrecks roads. But the idea is not without its challenges: Environmentalists say it's crazy and are vowing to kill it. And at low tide, the water is just four feet deep.

"It was an active port once before," said Rick Callender, government affairs manager for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which is backing the idea. "If there's an active interest in having waterborne access in the South Bay, here's an opportunity for it. There are naysayers in every situation."

Callender said that with some dredging, hydrofoil ferries could be brought in through Alviso Slough to the shores of San Jose, a trip of about four miles from the open bay.

"We aren't talking about a major shipping port like Oakland or Richmond," he said. "There would be ferry service that could connect to jobs and the new 49ers stadium."


Advertisement

The idea, which originated with the water district, will have its first opportunity for public input tonight at a workshop hosted by the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce.

The water district and the chamber were awarded a $180,000 federal grant to study the idea last year by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The city of San Jose, Santa Clara County and the water district then each contributed an additional $60,000 toward the study.

The work will be done by AECOM, a Los Angeles firm, with a feasibility report scheduled to be released next spring.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose, has requested $100,000 for the studies in the current federal budget, citing the potential to move supplies in an emergency.

Founded in 1852, Alviso once was a port for steamships and other boats that carried local redwood, quicksilver, hides and orchard fruits around the world. But when railroads were built between San Jose and San Francisco in the 1860s, they bypassed Alviso, and eventually the port silted in.

Environmentalists said Tuesday that any attempt to build a port again at Alviso is folly.

"There's zero chance. It's too impractical. It's too expensive. It will be a regulatory nightmare," said Eileen McLaughlin, with the Palo Alto-based Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge. "It's throwing public money away. A well-informed meeting with some scientists — people who could explain the practicality — and this wouldn't have been pursued."

Alviso Slough, which empties the Guadalupe River into the bay, is surrounded on both sides by a national wildlife refuge. The sediments contain mercury. Endangered species live around the edges.

In 2008, a grant application submitted to the federal government by Callender said that with a port, Alviso could become a center of commerce.

Callender's proposal called for retail, restaurants, a hotel and promenade, along with a museum, an IMAX movie theater, a concert facility and an amusement park in Alviso, which is currently home to 3,000 people.

Chamber of Commerce CEO Pat Dando was unavailable Tuesday to comment on those plans, her staff said. Spokeswoman Pat Sausedo said at this point, the consultant's study will look only at the pros and cons of developing a port to help bring in supplies in emergencies.

"We'll see what the results are," she said. "We don't have the results of the study yet. One step at a time."

The engineering challenges are formidable. Construction of industrial salt evaporation ponds in the 1930s rerouted the Guadalupe River, cutting off tidal action. In the 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers and the water district straightened the river to improve flood safety, but they inadvertently created a freeway for sediment.

The county opened a recreational boating marina at Alviso in the 1960s, but it silted up at a rate of two feet a year, and by the early 1980s, the bulrushes and cattails began to take over. The marina was abandoned.

Although the county opened a small boat ramp in Alviso last month, and the water district is planning to dredge a portion of the slough down to eight feet deep, the channel capacity remains much smaller than it was generations ago.

Dave Schoellhamer, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Sacramento, noted that further dredging of the channel would mean millions of tons of mud and silt would need to be disposed of somewhere by barge. Because the South Bay collects huge amounts of sediment that flow down rivers, the water level south of the Dumbarton Bridge averages about six feet deep.

The closest port, the Port of Redwood City, spends about $2 million every two years dredging its channels.

"At low tide, you can't get down to Alviso with anything much bigger than a rowboat. For barges, or ferry boats, you want 10 or 12 feet of water," said Mike Giari, general manager of the Port of Redwood City. "So that means dredging, and dredging is not easy to do.

"But who knows what the potential could be? That's the purpose of the study."

Contact Paul Rogers at 408-920-5045.

If you plan to go

A workshop on the port plan is scheduled from 5 to 7 tonight at the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce, 101 W. Santa Clara St. in downtown San Jose.