After Petaluma River dredging, cleanup begins

The recently completed dredging of the Petaluma River, a long overdue project, cleared the channel of boatloads of mud and silt that had blocked commerce and recreation on the waterway.

But, at the same time, it created a new problem.

All of the material that the dredging barge sucked up from the river bottom was pumped to Shollenberger Park, which was created as a site to offload dredging spoils. That includes all the garbage that got mixed in with the mud.

So, while the river is decidedly cleaner, the dredging work has left a cleanup project for an army of volunteers at Shollenberger.

Most mornings last week, a group of socially distanced volunteers have donned boots, gloves and masks and swept the mucky edges of the Shollenberger lagoon, picking up everything from bits of plastic and golf balls to pieces of tire, traffic cones and even a bowling ball.

The effort, a partnership between the City of Petaluma, the Petaluma Wetlands Alliance and the Friends of the Petaluma River, is the last stage of the dredging project, meant to beautify the park and protect the birds and wildlife that feed on organisms in the nutrient-rich mud.

“We are a major bird migration site,” said John Shribbs, president of the Petaluma Wetlands Alliance. “It’s a feeding spot. If birds ingest that much plastic, it can cause a real problem in the food chain.”

On an overcast Friday morning, Pat Hanson, a Petaluma Wetlands Alliance member, trudged out to Shollenberger’s south weir with a bucket and a trash grabber. It was her fourth morning volunteering on the cleanup project.

She said there was an urgency to get the garbage off the surface before the rain comes, potentially embedding some of the trash in the mud. Next year, when the ponds are dry, volunteers will again collect the trash that becomes exposed.

“I wanted to clean up this mess,” said Hanson, who has found an unusually large amount of shoes. “I know we are just skimming the surface. People want their environment clean.”

The city purchased the 165-acre Shollenberger site in 1970 specifically to contain the dredge spoils. It was declared a park in 1995 and named after Richard Shollenberger, a retired Parks and Recreation director. The two miles of trails along levees are popular with walkers, joggers and bird watchers.

Being adjacent to the Petaluma River, it remains a treasured site for the Friends of the Petaluma River advocacy group. The organization helped recruit dozens of volunteers for the cleanup effort in the past week, said Stephanie Bastianon, executive director of the Friends of the Petaluma River.

She said volunteers have removed about 500 pounds of garbage from the wetlands.

“You can really see the plastic bottles,” she said. “There’s a lot of debris from the river that has been unearthed. You definitely don’t want that in the wetlands.”

John Richards joined the Petaluma Wetlands Alliance because, he said, he likes being out in nature and staying active. Just before the rains fell on Friday, he was actively removing tiny plastic toys and bottles from the edge of Shollenberger pond, where a seagull carcass lay.

“It’s a little bit to help the community,” he said. “We feel better about ourselves when the world looks neater.”

For his part, Chris Simpson, another PWA member and volunteer, has pulled some interesting rubbish from the wetlands, including the bowling ball and a used syringe. He said he frequents the park’s trails and wants to make it clean for others to enjoy.

“I want it to be beautiful,” he said. “I can’t stand all the litter. I don’t want animals to eat it. It’s bad for the environment.”

Richards said he wants to create a better world.

“When there are less human-made things in nature, it gives me peace and a sense that things are going to be alright,” he said.

(Contact Matt Brown at

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