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Petaluma River's muddy predicament

  • A small boat cruises by a barge moored along the Petaluma River in Petaluma, Calif., on March 15, 2014. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

After years of deferred dredging, the Petaluma River is so choked with mud and silt that sailboats become stuck in places at low tide.

Some yachters, with money to spend at Petaluma's shops and restaurants, may be avoiding the city's ports fearing damage to their vessels.

Barges must ply the shallow waterway with less-than-full loads of valuable building materials, leaving revenue on the table for local operators.

Petaluma River

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The river, which is actually a 13-mile tidal slough that empties into San Pablo Bay and a vital artery for Petaluma commerce, is long overdue for dredging.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is mandated to dredge the river and keep the shipping lane open, hasn't had the funding to carry out the maintenance work since 2003.

The river is 2 feet deep in places at low tide. With normal dredging, the river should be 8 feet at low tide, said Jessica Burton Evans, navigation program manager for the corps.

"The normal dredging cycle is every four years," she said. "We do know it is overdue for maintenance."

There is hope for relief in the near future. The Army Corps of Engineers last week received $500,000 in congressional appropriations to do the initial planning for the dredging project. But the agency lacks the $6 million it needs to complete the work this year, meaning the river won't be dredged until at least late 2015.

In past cycles, funding for dredging has followed appropriation of the planning money, and officials say this is an encouraging sign.

"I'm happy to see it moving in the right direction," said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents Petaluma. "One would assume that once the planning money is there, money could be made available to get the project complete."


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