It's been awhile since anyone removed silt buildups from the city's Turning Basin or along the Petaluma River's main channel and it's not likely funds will be found anywhere to do it anytime soon.
"We should, ideally, dredge far more often," Tom Corbett said, noting that the river is an important source of revenue for the city. A past Commodore of the Petaluma Yacht Club and long-time friend of the river, Corbett has worked in various volunteer programs to help keep the waterway open to both commercial and recreational traffic.
"Visiting boaters tend to spend significant amounts of money," Corbett said, adding that boaters spend up to $200 a day per couple, with an average of two couples a boat and up to 800 sail and power boats a year making the 12-mile journey upriver to the center of town.
Just who pays for dredging the river is not always clear. There is a flood control component as well as a navigable channel component, each funded differently.
The last time the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the river as part of it's duty to keep navigable channels clear was 2003, according to Jessica Burton Evans, a federal employe who oversees dredging projects for the Corps in the Bay Area.
"The river channel is on a four-year cycle, and it's overdue for funding," Evans noted. "We've put it into our budget request since 2007 but it hasn't made it into the President's budget." President Obama signed the FY2012 budget last week.
"We know we are overdue for maintenance and backlog on this channel as well as others in the Bay Area, but until we receive an appropriation, unfortunately, there's not a lot we can do," she said.
The Turning Basin and the river channel were dredged following the New Year's Day flooding of 2006, thanks in large part to state and federal funding through FEMA.
Corbett is worried that any heavy storms this winter will deposit enough silt in the Turning Basin and river channel to block the deep draft sailboats and bigger powerboats.
"Any substantial storm brings a lot of water, turning it into a real river instead of a tidal estuary that rises and falls with the tides. It makes a 90-degree turn at Balshaw bridge, hits the banks under the Apple Box, swirls and creates an eddy that deposits a significant amount of silt and debris in front of Dempsey's," Corbett said. "And there are two or three more eddy points where silt builds up. It's fairly significant now since it hasn't been dredged for so long."
Dredging was scheduled for 2000, but not done in an earlier budget crunch. Putting dredging off too long can have other, unintended consequences. The rich silt and soil dredged up from the river bottom is pumped into holding ponds at Schollenberger Park specifically designed for the purpose. By the time the flood project dredging was funded and ready to go in 2003, pickleweed was flourishing in the dried out ponds, a favorite food for the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse. Sorting that out set the dredging project back several weeks, and affected the 2006-2007 FEMA-sponsored flood control dredging, as well. The entire project stretched out over two years and was never fully completed.
While the federal government is responsible for dredging the navigable river channel and the Turning Basin, the City has responsibility to keep the Petaluma Marina clear. According to Larry Zimmer of the City's Public Works Department, the City is preparing a mitigation plan for where it dumps the Marina dredgings. The plan is necessary to enable it to get a dredging permit for the Petaluma Marina.