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Lake Natoma ranked No. 3 Top Rowing Venue by Rowing News

Rowing News magazine ranked Lake Natoma, home to Sacramento State's Aquatic Center, No. 3 in the United States on its Top Ten Rowing Venues in North America list, behind Montlake in Washington and Florida’s Nathan Benderson Park. (Courtesy Charles Gunn Photography)

The still waters of Lake Natoma are an ideal spot for rowing, according to Rowing News.

The magazine’s list of Top Ten Rowing Venues in North America ranked Lake Natoma No. 3 in the United States, behind Montlake Cut in Washington and Florida’s Nathan Benderson Park.

“It’s a nice surprise,” said Cindi Dulgar, Sacramento State Aquatic Center associate director. “We’re great because of the people that support us.

“We get to enjoy the lake every day, and this brings recognition back to the University.”

The Aquatic Center regularly hosts West Coast regattas. They include: Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships, USRowing Southwest Youth Championships, Pac-12 Rowing Championships, Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships, Women’s NCAA Rowing Championships, and, in 2022, the U.S. Canoe/Kayak Team Trials.

“This is such a beautiful place.” -- Brian Dulgar, Aquatic Center director

Held behind Nimbus Dam and fed by American River water released from Folsom Dam, Lake Natoma is a state park that accommodates fishing and boating, and is skirted by trails for hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding.

“It’s one of the stillest lakes,” said Brian Dulgar, the Aquatic Center director and Cindi Dulgar’s spouse. “The water is super protected by the landscape. … It takes much higher winds than other places to make it unrowable.”

When it comes to rowing venues, fairness is key.

“There are some venues in the country that are susceptible to inclement weather, with winds that pick up in the afternoon, making some lanes more favorable than others,” Dulgar said.

Lake Natoma was little more than a reservoir for Folsom Lake releases back in the early 1980s. The shores were too rocky for boat launches. The only facilities were leaky Quonset huts.

“This was all rocks,” Aquatic Center rowing manager DeDe Birch said. “The state park was a little turn-in circle for parking and nothing else. There wasn’t even a picnic table.

“You had to climb over rocks to get to the water.”

Grant money and a partnership between the California Department of Parks and Recreation and Sac State’s Associated Students Inc. resulted in upgrades such as a sloped beach area, launch ramps, a spectator pavilion, and a fishing dock.

A system made up of 8 miles of cables can be set up 6 feet under water to transform the lake into a premier rowing venue, and one of the few places in the country that can have seven lanes of side-by-side 2,000-meter races.

“When we put the course out, it’s a giant, wire grid,” Birch said. “When you see all the buoys lined up, north to south, it looks like the perfect chessboard.”

When the race is over, the lake returns to a shared public space.

“We’re able to pull off a championship regatta, and the very next day the state park can go back to its natural state,” Cindi Dulgar said. “We have picnickers and baby baptisms and all kinds of people using the state park the next day, as it’s also intended.”

Lake Natoma is where both the Sac State women’s rowing team and Sac State Rowing Club practice. Birch runs a high school program that included more than 200 students from throughout the Sacramento region at its peak.

The lake also is home to Birch’s program for post-collegiate athletes ranging from 23 to 78 years old.

Upcoming events at Lake Natoma include:

  • March 12, April 16, 22: Capital Crew League Races
  • April 13-15: USA Canoe Olympic Team Trials
  • April 28-30: WIRA Rowing Championships
  • May 4-7: Southwest Junior Rowing Championships
  • May 13: West Coast Conference and Western Sprint Rowing Championships
  • May 20: Gold Rush Masters Regatta
  • Oct. 27–28: Head of the American Rowing Regatta

Except for a one-week winter break and during high water flows, such as those caused by recent rainstorms, the Aquatic Center operates throughout the year, renting kayaks, canoes and paddle boards, and offering classes and youth camps.

Each year, the Aquatic Center serves about 50,000 people, Brian Dulgar said.

“This is such a beautiful place,” he said. “There’s something about being on the water. You can have a miserable day, and you come out here and it just clears your mind.”

An overhead view of a regatta rowing event at Sacramento State's Aquatic Center on Lake Natoma.
The Sac State Aquatic Center at Lake Natoma regularly hosts West Coast regattas, such as this 2019 event, and practice sessions for both the Sac State women’s rowing team and Sac State Rowing Club as well as successful high school and post-collegiate programs. (Courtesy Cindi Dulgar)


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About Jennifer K. Morita

Jennifer K. Morita joined Sacramento State in 2022. A former newspaper reporter for the Sacramento Bee, she spent several years juggling freelance writing with being a mom. When she isn’t chauffeuring her two daughters, she enjoys reading mysteries, experimenting with recipes, and Zumba.

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