A recently formed coalition of business, nonprofit and governmental leaders met with Congressman Jared Huffman Friday to make a passionate plea for dredging the Petaluma River as soon as possible.
The meeting took place at the Petaluma Yacht Club alongside a popular boating destination, the Turning Basin, in which a pontoon boat could be seen floating by.
Congressman Jared Huffman, long a supporter of dredging the river, came to gather more information from the group of stakeholders as he prepared to make a case to the Army Corps of Engineers. The group included city officials like Mayor David Glass and Councilmember Teresa Barrett as well as members of local clubs like the Petaluma Yacht Club, Friends of the Petaluma River and the Petaluma Downtown Association, and officials from river-dependent businesses like Jerico Products and Shamrock Materials.
The Petaluma River, actually a 13-mile tidal slough, has long been maintained as a channel for commercial boat traffic. It silts in naturally as tides and heavy rains bring sand and other sediment up the river, requiring the channel to be dredged every 5 to 7 years to keep the waterway clear for commercial and recreational boats.
Maintaining the channel falls primarily to the Army Corps of Engineers, whose budget has been stretched thin in recent years. The river hasn't been fully dredged in a decade, and it's expected the work would cost $7 million or more. In 2006, after the huge New Year's Eve flood, the Federal Emergency Management Agency paid for a partial dredging, but that only returned the river to pre-storm conditions.
In a June interview with the Argus-Courier, Huffman expressed hope that funding for dredging the river could arrive in the form of a U.S. Senate bill, sent to the House of Representatives for approval. The Senate's version of the spending bill would have increased the Army Corps of Engineers' budget for maintenance projects.
But, just days before Huffman's meeting with Petaluma officials, the Republican-led house passed an altered version of the bill with no increase in spending for the Army Corps, meaning that funding remains incredibly scarce for the agency.
Despite that news, at Friday's meeting, Huffman listened attentively to a presentation that outlined the importance of river dredging to tourism and commerce in Petaluma.
Jerico, the Petaluma tugboat company that tows close to 700,000 tons of freight down the river annually, said its ability to do so has been seriously hampered by the shallow river conditions. Jerico estimates that it has had to reduce the amount of freight it carries by about 25-30 percent.
Marie McCusker, executive director of the Petaluma Downtown Association, pointed out that tourism is affected too. Last year, she said, 466 boats visited the Turning Basin, accounting for 1,076 overnight stays and an influx of $1.3 million to the local economy. But with the water getting shallower, word is getting out that sail boats and yachts must carefully time their visits to Petaluma around the tides or risk getting stuck in the mud.
Between the spring of 2012 and 2013, the river lost between a foot and a half of two feet of depth in the Turning Basin, according to Petaluma Yacht Club Member Tom Corbett, who measures the water depth each year.
Meanwhile, Public Works Director Dan St. John said the city is doing its part to prepare for the dredging. That includes completing a plan for environmental work at the Shollenberger Park spoils site, where the Army Corps can deposit sediment it pulls from the river. That work satisfies requirements by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and means the site is ready to accept the spoils of the dredging. Having a nearby site in which to deposit the dredged silt is helpful for the Corps, which otherwise must pipe the excess sediment to another, far-away disposal site at a greater cost.