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Underground infrastructure upgrades take shape

While Petaluma’s potholed streets are noticeably in need of repair, just below the pavement improvements to the city’s less visible infrastructure are taking shape. A multi-million dollar effort to replace an aging downtown water main recently wrapped up as a handful of other critical water and wastewater-related infrastructure projects are underway to improve service for the city’s more than 60,000 residents.

The Petaluma City Council Monday voted to accept the completion of the $3.8 million year-long replacement project that spans from Lakeville Street to B Street. The effort is expected to ramp up fire protection for merchants in the city’s core business district by allowing them to install fire sprinklers. The downtown area has historically been ravaged by devastating fires, including a 2002 blaze on Kentucky Street that damaged several business and injured a firefighter.

Construction began last June to replace the undersized four-inch pipe that’s between 50 and 75 years old with a new 12-inch main. It includes fire hydrants and offshoots for area businesses to create their own connections to the system.

Construction and a repaving of the road were completed last month, according to a city staff report.

According to a city ordinance, downtown facilities with basements or spaces below street level will now have six years to install the sprinklers and connections to the main water line. Above-ground businesses will have a dozen years to comply. An estimated 29 business will be impacted.

Dave Kahn, the battalion chief of fire administration, said that installing sprinklers could potentially allow for increased occupancy and new uses for downtown businesses, should merchants seek city permission. He said those sprinklers would likely reduce the spread and scale of future fires.

Dan St. John, the city’s director of public works and utilities, said the project bolsters public safety while also encouraging economic development.

“We view that as a very successful project designed by city engineering staff who know better than anyone the details of downtown,” he said. “So as a result of a very good design effort, the construction went very smoothly, granted that we were going through the middle of downtown with a new water line and services.”

Holly Wick, a downtown business owner and the president of the Petaluma Downtown Association’s Board of Directors, said construction-related traffic snarls adversely affected merchants.

“It’s kind of been exhausting and certainly very hard on businesses in these past six months, just because there’s never-ending construction on Petaluma Boulevard,” she said. “What happens is ... locals or people from surrounding areas don’t want to come because they know it’s a headache.”

Post-construction business is slowly bouncing back, and she said the public safety value of the project is important.

“As much as we value the historical downtown area in terms of aesthetics, we also want to modernize and make sure it’s fire proof and has sprinklers – that’s good business practice,” she said.

St. John said the majority of the other water mains that serve Petaluma are healthy, but some lines that stretch from water mains to homes are made of a once-popular material that’s now becoming brittle, resulting in tiny fractures. Those are dealt with on an ongoing basis, he said.

Overall, the city’s annual percentage of unaccounted for water – the product of failing or leaking pipes – falls “well below” 10 percent, he said.

In the current fiscal year, the city is budgeted to spend more than $26 million on various water and wastewater projects around the city, with money coming mainly from grants and capital funds, according to the budget.

Those projects include the $3.1 million replacement of the cracked and undersized sewer trunk main along Petaluma Boulevard South that’s expected to wrap up in October. Part of the funding was included this fiscal year, and work is ongoing between H Street and Mountain View Avenue.

Other, smaller repairs for sewer lines will take place as part of an annual effort to improve quality of pipes and reduce maintenance costs. About $1.4 million is budgeted for sewer main repairs in various east side neighborhoods.

The city will also pay $241,000 in penalties as a settlement to the California Regional Water Control Board for the alleged failure to properly report sewer overflows at various locations through the city in 2014 and early 2016. Part of that money will be used to fund a cleanup effort of the Petaluma River.

Other areas in the region struggle with overflows, St. John said, but the city has in recent years undergone work to remedy the issue. Only one minor overflow was reported this winter, near Petaluma Boulevard South, he said.

“Knock on wood – (overflows) will be a thing of the past because of these improvements we’ve been doing since 2014,” he said.

About $19 million is budgeted for work at the Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility, where wastewater is treated and converted to recycled water. Projects will take place in phases, with a new digester to be installed first to pave the way for infrastructure that will turn sewage into fuel for city vehicles.

Work began in June to install recycled water mains, or purple pipe, along a stretch of east Petaluma, allow the city to provide an increased amount of potable water to agricultural and urban users, including golf courses, schools and parks.

While those projects are less visible than others, like repairing sidewalks or repaving streets, they are critical to the functionality of the city, City Councilman Mike Healy said.

“That’s a frustrating issue — there are roads out there where you can see them and everyone is experiencing them on a daily basis,” he said. “Water and wastewater is for the most part underground, and everyone assumes it’s working. It’s out of sight, out of mind.”