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Petaluma lighted boat parade canceled because of river silt

Thousands of tourists did not flock to downtown Petaluma this past weekend to witness the Lighted Boat Parade, an annual holiday tradition.

They were not wowed by the dozens of yachts bejeweled with colorful stem-to-stern lights floating up the Petaluma River to the Turning Basin. Boat owners did not dress up in festive holiday attire, nor did they come ashore to dine and shop at Petaluma businesses.

None of this happened because the traditional early December spectacle was canceled for the second year in a row due to a lack of river maintenance.

“The Lighted Boat Parade is one more event that makes Petaluma unique,” said Leland Fishman, commodore of the Petaluma Yacht Club. “But at low tide, boats can’t get in or out.”

Officials are hopeful that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will dredge the Petaluma River in 2020 for the first time in 17 years. The river, which is normally dredged on a four-year cycle, has become so choked with silt that commerce and recreation on the waterway has nearly ground to a halt.

Maintaining a navigable channel is vital to Petaluma’s economy. Besides commercial shipping, the city counts on millions of tourist dollars that boaters bring to events like the Lighted Boat Parade and an annual Memorial Day cruise that has been canceled for the past three years.

“River tourism brings a lot of revenue to our downtown,” said Marie McCusker, executive director of the Petaluma Downtown Association. “If we don’t get a dredge, we are going to lose a lot of our river traditions.”

Officials have made a concerted effort to woo the Army Corps of Engineers for a dredging project next summer. In August, Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, and Petaluma Mayor Teresa Barrett took Arny Corps of Engineers Lt. Col. John Cunningham on a tour of the Petaluma River, which at low tide reveals mud and sandbars.

Barrett also presented Cunningham with a petition signed by 3,700 residents, part of the mayor’s “Dredge Pledge.”

“I’m as excited as anybody to hear whether or not we’re going to get the money for the dredging,” Barrett said. “We’re hoping that we get this early Christmas present, but I just don’t know what will transpire in Washington. So, fingers crossed and hoping for the best. We all deserve it, and we know that our river needs it so let’s hope all our work pays off.”

Two years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers invested $600,000 to complete all the necessary preliminary work, including the cornerstone environmental analysis. But the Petaluma River dredging project has been left off the past two work plans.

The 2020 work plan is normally due in December, but Congress has not yet passed an appropriations bill for next year. The continuing resolution that the federal government is currently operating under expires on Dec. 20.

“Immediately following a full year appropriation, a work plan would then be developed which typically takes about 30 to 45 days to finalize and make public,” said Justin Yee, San Francisco District project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers. “So in this scenario, a work plan could be developed and published by early February of 2020.”

Mary Hurrell, a spokeswoman for Rep. Huffman’s office, said the congressman is awaiting the Army Corps of Engineers’ work plan. She said that Huffman has made the dredging project a priority and pointed to language he inserted in an appropriations bill in June that “reminds the Army Corps of Engineers that given public safety concerns as well as economic impacts, Petaluma River is eligible to compete for additional funding provided in this account.”

Supervisor David Rabbitt has also lobbied for dredging funding for the Petaluma River. He said he has gotten his hopes up before, like when the preliminary study was funded, only to see the actual dredging delayed.

“We seem to go one step forward two steps back. Everyone shares our frustration,” he said. “As always, our fingers are crossed. We’re eternally optimistic.”

The city of Petaluma is moving ahead with plans for its portion of the dredging effort. The city is responsible for dredging the Petaluma Marina, which it will do regardless of the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision, said Jason Beatty, interim public works director.

He said the city is hopeful the federal government will come through this year, but Petaluma is making contingencies in case it doesn’t

“We’re moving forward with the environmental study for the Marina,” he said. “We’ll bring a plan to council if they don’t dredge. What that looks like, we don’t have the full details yet.”

On a parallel track, a citizen’s group has formed to take over the river dredging project after the Army Corps of Engineers next dredge. The Sustainably Take Over River Maintenance or STORM group is hoping to raise money to fund a local dredging project.

The latest proposal is a monthly assessment on city water bills that would raise $7.5 million every eight years. The city could use the money to hire a dredging contractor or, if other regional city add funding, they could jointly purchase a dredging machine, said Jeff Mayne, a Petaluma mortgage broker who crafted the proposal and works with the STORM group.

Since the proposal involves raising fees, it would have to be put to a vote, which could come next November, Mayne said.

“This may be the last time the Army Corps dredges the river,” he said. “We have a longterm plan to have the river dredged in a normal way. We need to take it on so that we can have these events on the river.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)

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