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Group calls for Petaluma River dredging

Raymond L. Gates, captain of the Jerico tugboat Petaluma, stands on the dock near Shamrock Materials on the Petaluma River.

John O'Hara/For the Argus-Courier
Published: Monday, January 21, 2013 at 8:42 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 21, 2013 at 8:42 a.m.

Silt is piling up in the Petaluma River and at least one company is finding it extremely bad for business.

The river naturally deposits silt as water flows downstream, requiring it to be dredged every four years to keep the channel clear for boats. But a full dredging hasn't happened in 10 years.

As a result, Petaluma tugboat and barge company Jerico Products is seeing an increased drop in profit that is threatening its ability to stay in business.

“We've decreased the amount of tonnage we are able to haul by about 15 percent over the past few years, and it's getting worse everyday,” said Christian Lind, Jerico Product's general manager. “At the rate it's going, if the Army Corp of Engineers doesn't dredge soon, we're at a serious risk of going out of business.”

Dredging for the Petaluma River falls to the Army Corps of Engineers and typically occurs every four years. But because the river is classified by the Corps as a “shallow-water, low-use” channel, meaning its annual shipping commerce is relatively small compared to that of other waterways the Corps is responsible for dredging, its maintenance has been put off since 2003 due to federal budget cuts.

“Because of the total U.S. deficit, our budget has been decreasing each year,” said Jessica Burton Evans, the Corps local navigations program manager. “We haven't even had the sufficient funding to properly maintain the deep-water, high-usage waterways.”

Petaluma's project, which typically costs about $2 million to complete, has been delayed for so long now that Burton Evans said it will now cost the Corps anywhere from $6 to $10 million to complete — a large sum she said would be difficult to find approval for, given the lower priority assigned by the Corps to the commercial aspects of the channel.

But concern is rising for local businesses and residents. During a meeting Friday, several community members affected by the lack of river dredging, including representatives from Jerico Shipping, the Petaluma Yacht Club, the Petaluma Downtown Association, the Police Department and the city, met to discuss possible solutions.

“Not only is Petaluma's commercial river traffic lessening, tourist traffic is lessening as well,” said Tom Corbett, president of the Petaluma Yacht Club.

Corbett said that each visiting boat that docks in the Turning Basin will spend up to $500 on food and shopping in the city, providing the city a much-needed infusion of sales tax revenue. But Corbett said if word gets out that the river has become unnavigable due to silt buildup, it could deter would-be tourists.

While local business owners worry about the indirect hit their businesses could sustain if siltation worsens without a dredging, for Lind and Jerico Products the stakes are much higher.

“We're losing valuable tonnage, we're incurring higher fuel and labor costs and we're running out of options,” he said. “I'd be interesting in the city coming on board to help our cause. If we make enough noise to the Corps, then we may get pushed to a higher priority.”

Some of the ideas floated at Friday's meeting included starting a letter-writing campaign to the Corps and Congressman Jared Huffman to place federal pressure on the Corps to move the project higher on its priority list and exploring other financial sources, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Following a New Year's Eve flood in 2006, FEMA performed a partial dredging of the river. If the threat of flooding becomes severe enough, Petaluma could again turn to FEMA for assistance.

Whatever the source, river dredging has become a high priority in Petaluma. “It's something that the community needs to support,” said Public Works Director Dan St. John. “The community needs to write letters, talk to their representatives and make it a team effort.”

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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