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Officials say river can't wait

Published: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 at 1:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 at 1:36 p.m.

City leaders and Congressman Jared Huffman have stepped up efforts to find a way to remove more than a decade's worth of silt from the Petaluma River after the Army Corps of Engineers said recently it did not have adequate funding to dredge the waterway anytime soon.

“The river can't wait for the corps,” said Public Works Director Dan St. John. “We've reached the point at which the community needs to look at other means and really come together to get this done.”

Silt naturally builds up in the river, which is actually a tidal slough, making dredging necessary every five to seven years. If dredging does not occur regularly, the river becomes shallower. This puts recreational boats and commercial vessels at risk for stranding on piles of silt along the river's bottom, and makes it difficult for barges to carry heavy loads.

In the past, dredging waterways like the Petaluma River, which are used for commerce, has always fallen to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. But as federal funds dried up in recent years and congressional earmarks for such projects disappeared, the corps has been unable to afford dredging maintenance on many of the country's high-traffic waterways. That means less-used channels like Petaluma's 13-mile slough have become long-overdue for the recommended silt removal.

The Petaluma River hasn't been dredged since 2003, aside from a partial silt and debris removal done in 2006 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prevent flooding. Fully dredging the river typically costs about $2 million, but because the channel hasn't been regularly maintained in the past 10 years, it could now cost as much as $10 million to complete. Despite the high costs, officials have always remained optimistic about finding the money in the Army Corps' budget. Congressman Jared Huffman said just this June that he thought the funds could be secured with lobbying or new legislation.

But at a July meeting, Huffman was told by the corps that they could not be counted on to complete the dredging any time soon due to a continued lack of funding from Congress and Petaluma's low priority as a lesser-used commercial waterway. As a result, Huffman is now pushing for the city to team up with other nearby river towns to complete the dredging themselves.

Petaluma officials also seem ready to acknowledge that the corps cannot be counted on to dredge the river. Many are calling for everyone with a vested interest in river traffic, like local businesses, city officials and boating enthusiasts, to join together to find a solution.

“The answer to this problem is making a collaborative push to get the dredging done,” said Christian Lind, general manager of Petaluma tugboat and barge company Jerico Products — the business that has arguably been hit the hardest from the lack of dredging. These days, Jerico's barges are carrying far less weight than normal just to prevent the massive vessels from becoming stuck in the muck.

Lind said that Jerico recently had to turn down business that would have meant an additional $60,000 in revenue for his company per month, from a customer that he estimates would have added $5 million a year in revenue for the community. “It's a shame,” he said, declining to say which customer he was referring to. “But that's where we are.”

St. John said that there are several ways to accomplish dredging without the Army Corps, like using the $1.2 million per year the Sonoma County Water Agency collects from Petaluma-area residents for flood taxes to pay for dredging; or partnering with other communities to jointly rent equipment necessary to perform the silt removal without the corps' assistance. But St. John stressed the importance of all the interested parties within the city agreeing to move forward together before possible solutions could even be discussed.

“We can't look at a solution to the problem until we have a consensus and some sort of a coalition,” said St. John. “If the council makes it a priority, if the local businesses come together, if the local boating community joins in, and we all agree that the corps will not be doing the dredging and we have to find another way, then we can look at solutions.”

Until recently, most groups had still been pushing for the Army Corps to dredge. In July, local officials, businesses and river enthusiasts met with Huffman and shared their concerns, hoping that he would relay these issues at his July meeting with the Army Corps of Engineers.

St. John said he hopes that spirit of camaraderie will continue in the future, despite the corps' lack of funding.

“We all know what a gem the Petaluma River can be to the yachting community, to the Bay Area, to local businesses and to the city's economy,” said St. John. We just have to make it a joint priority.”

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

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