After years of development, Petaluma Water Ways — a plan dedicated to making the Petaluma River a major tourist attraction — has received official approval from the Petaluma City Council.

Petaluma Water Ways is a blueprint for highlighting the natural and recreational opportunities of the Petaluma River by expanding riverfront pedestrian and bicycle trails, green spaces, access points for boats, and parks. A coalition of local river enthusiasts, nonprofits and city officials, called Petaluma River Access Partners, began creating the plan in 2008. Their goal was to work in tandem with the city's River Access and Enhancement Plan, created in 1996, to make the river more accessible.

The Water Ways plan highlights 34 points of access or interest along the river and includes current landmarks like the River Heritage Center, the Turning Basin Trestle and the Petaluma Marina. It also calls for the creation of future landmarks like a small boat rental center, a larger community boathouse, and pocket parks and vista points on both sides of the river.

The group has already begun, and in some cases finished, several of the projects it has identified along the 6.5 miles of riverfront within Petaluma's city limits. Projects already underway include building out small pocket parks at the end of G and H streets; the Copeland Crossing Bridge, which connects trails in east and west Petaluma; and drafting plans for a public boathouse in the Turning Basin.

When the council officially recognized the plan on July 15, it also approved designating the Turning Basin an official site on the San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail, which is a network of places around the San Francisco Bay where boaters can access the water.

Assistant City Manager Scott Brodhun said the Water Ways plan would only increase community interest in the central water way. "This plan is all about access to the river," said Brodhun. "We know this plan is going to encourage an enormous amount of project adoption and volunteerism; in fact it already has."

According to Brodhun, Susan Starbird, a volunteer project coordinator, has been a critical partner in developing the plan. Starbird has put a great deal of effort into the project, and can't wait to use the plan's recent approval to further its progress.

"This small step on the council's agenda was a big step forward in realizing Petaluma's dream of a completely connected greenway and river access network in the heart of our community," said Starbird. She added during a presentation to the council, "We need to build these projects for this generation. I'm hoping to see a lot of it completed in my lifetime."

Through efforts like these, the Petaluma River has become a popular spot for many locals and visitors. Last weekend's fourth annual Rivertown Revival festival and an ongoing Petaluma Museum exhibit are proof of the town's growing appreciation of the river.

The Rivertown Revival drew people from Petaluma and far beyond to celebrate Petaluma's early 1900's river heritage, a time when the town bustled with boat traffic carrying eggs, grain and other products between Petaluma and San Francisco.

Visitors could watch art boat races on the river and listen to music, among other things, and the $5 entry fee they paid helped fund the restoration of the former livery stable now known as the David Yearsley River Heritage Center. Restoration of that building is another component of the Petaluma Water Ways plan, as is expanding Steamer Landing Park, where Rivertown Revival takes place.

The Petaluma River is also being highlighted by the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum, where a new exhibit features the past, present, and future of the river.

"There are a lot of people around here who are interested in the river, especially its health and history," said Museum Director, Faith Ross. "The exhibit includes information on the history of the river, the changes it has gone through, what it looks like now, and what is planned for its future."

Petaluma Water Ways volunteer John Fitzgerald has experienced that history and played a key role in planning the river's future.

"In the mid seventies, when I first arrived in Petaluma, the upper river was not that attractive and friendly a place to be around" said Fitzgerald. "In 1986, the Chamber of Commerce River Committee, which I was a member of, put on a little festival that would encourage and bring the attention of the downtown business association to this wonderful amenity running through town."

The festival continued, and in 1990, the city began to recruit citizens — including Fitzgerald — to help draft the river access enhancement plan.

That plan led to the creation of Petaluma Water Ways, which will help ensure that the river remains an attractive and friendly place for future generations.

(Contact Keeley Chism at argus@arguscourier.com)