Petaluma River's muddy predicament

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.

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."

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said funding may come in next year's appropriations cycle. Huffman has worked to secure funding for Corps of Engineers maintenance, including the Petaluma River dredging project and dredging at Bodega Bay, Sonoma County's other commercial port.

"We're going to try to make it happen next year," said Huffman, whose district includes Petaluma. "We're going to have to be squeaky wheels to get this done."

Huffman said the loss of congressional earmarks, a mechanism for funding specific projects, has made it difficult to secure funds for the Petaluma River.

"Without earmarks, it's easy for a project like this to get lost in massive Army Corps of Engineers budgets," he said.

The river has been the lifeblood of the city since the early days of Petaluma. Merchants shipped goods to San Francisco before roads or rail travel.

Today, the river contributes about $10 million to the local economy through commercial and recreational uses, river operators say.

Petaluma-based Jerico Products operates barges and tugboats on the river, moving up to a million tons per year of sand and gravel for Shamrock Materials and Dutra Materials and oyster shells for use in chicken feed.

Christian Lind, Jerico general manager, said that shipping on the river is worth $7 million.

A full barge can haul the equivalent of 160 trucks, he said. But lately barges are operating at 80 percent capacity in the low river.

"It is a big factor," he said. "It makes shipping costs go up. Efficiency goes down."

On the recreational side, 466boats visited Petaluma last year, which resulted in nearly

1,100 overnight stays, according to the Petaluma Yacht Club. Recreational boaters pumped another $3million into the local economy, said Harbormaster Barry Thorsson. Petaluma maintains a marina near Highway 101 and a port at the turning basin downtown.

"Commerce on the river is the No. 1 issue," he said. "As far as visiting boaters go, we have to warn them that they could get stuck in low tide."

Last summer, sailing publication Latitude 38 featured photos of sailboats stuck on the river.

Once the dredging project starts, it could take up to three months to complete, according to the Corps of Engineers. The corps uses a pipeline dredge, which is like a giant vacuum on a barge that sucks up silt and mud and deposits it into a spoils pit.

Petaluma has used Shollenberger Park, a wetland area just south of the marina, as a spoils site, Public Works Director Dan St. John said. The city recently received U.S. Fish and Wildlife approval to continue using the site for dredging spoils, he said.

"The stars are starting to line up for this project," he said. "We're really excited."

(You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.)