As business leaders, city officials and Petaluma River aficionados continue to stress the need to dredge the Petaluma River for flooding and boating concerns, a national water resources act making its way through U.S. House of Representatives could soon free up the needed funds.

As water flows through the Petaluma River, which is actually a tidal slough, it naturally deposits silt downstream. The silt deposits build up over time, requiring the channel to be dredged every four to six years to keep the waterway clear for boats.

Because the Petaluma River is used for commercial shipping, its dredging responsibilities fall to the Army Corps of Engineers. But because the Army Corp's budget has been stretched thin in recent years, the Petaluma River hasn't been dredged in a decade — and Petaluma is feeling the effects.

Petaluma tugboat and barge company Jerico Products said that the lack of dredging has been catastrophic to its business in town.

"It's been terrible," said General Manager Christian Lind. "We've had to reduce the weight of our barges coming up river by around 300 tons. That's 12 truckloads of material we can't get up river on each trip. It means that we are looking at moving some of our operations elsewhere in order to stay in business."

"I rarely go to a meeting that has anything to do with the river without the issue of dredging coming up," said the city's Public Works Director Dan St. John. "I've heard that commercial barges aren't carrying full loads and that boats are running aground. We're the river city. The river needs to be dredged."

Petaluma's dredging project typically costs about $2 million to complete, but since it has been put off since 2003, the Army Corps of Engineers estimates it will now cost anywhere from $6 million to $10 million. City officials have been in contact with county representatives and Petaluma's Congressman Jared Huffman, lobbying for dredging funds.

Huffman said that he sees hope for the Petaluma River in the form of the Water Resources Development Act — a Senate bill aimed at providing the Army Corps with a larger budget for maintenance projects and removing red tape for local jurisdictions trying to get projects approved.

"I feel like the Army Corps of Engineers is a viable option to get dredging done in Petaluma, in the near future," said Huffman. "The Petaluma River is a federal channel and if the WRDA bill passes, the Corps should have the budget and get the dredging taken care of."

Meanwhile, some have argued that since lack of dredging creates a flooding hazard for Petaluma, funding should come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA's, federal flooding maintenance budget. But Huffman says FEMA funding cannot be considered a long-term solution for the Petaluma River.

"It's something that my staff has been looking into during the last few weeks, but I don't want to raise expectations that there is a whole bunch of FEMA money available for this," said Huffman. "If we can get a little bit of one-time funding, we want to do that, but the main focus for us is the Army Corps. They need to maintain the channel."

The Water Resource Development Act recently passed the U.S. Senate with a vote of 83-14. The bill will now move onto the U.S. House of Representatives for consideration.

In the meantime, the Petaluma River is facing another year without dredging, and many local residents worry that the resulting siltation will cause boats to get stuck during the summer recreation season. Others worry that the high silt level could lead to heightened flooding during the winter rains.

"As someone who is out on the water a lot, this current situation is very bad," said Greg Sabourin, executive director of the Petaluma Small Craft Center. "There's a big island in the Turning Basin right now, and all it would take is a wet rainy season for everything to flood. As a river town, we want to get on that regular schedule of being dredged, rather than being treated like a step-child compared to other channels."

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)