Petaluma River dredged for first time in 17 years

Local leaders this week celebrated the final days of the Petaluma River dredge project, marking the end of a protracted effort to clear the central waterway of a 17-year silty entombment blamed for declining tourism and river recreation.

The nearly six-week long project is set to end Thursday, leaving the city with a rejuvenated river cleared of silt and debris as the electric-powered Sandpiper dredging barge and its San Diego-based Pacific Dredge & Construction crew make their way back to San Pablo Bay.

Congressman Jared Huffman and Petaluma Mayor Teresa Barrett, among the project’s most ardent champions, joined Lt. Col. John Cunningham of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and several other stakeholders at the Petaluma Yacht Club Tuesday afternoon to mark the occasion.

“This is the day we wanted to get to for a long time,” said Huffman, D-San Rafael, who has pressed the federal government for local dredging funds for eight years. “The great thing about this day is Petaluma is getting its river back.”

Barrett, who gathered more than 2,500 signatures to her “Mayor’s Dredge Pledge,” said it was the community’s support that helped lobby for the $9.7 million project.

“Our community really wanted this,” she said. “By showing up, we really made an impression. Nothing happens if you don’t work together.”

The 13-mile tidal slough, historically considered a commercial lifeblood for the county’s second-largest city, was once dredged every four years by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers but became neglected after federal funding dried up.

As the daily tides swept in more choking debris over the years, fewer and fewer boats were willing to tackle the increasingly shallow and hazardous waterway. The Petaluma Yacht Club, where the group of dignitaries applauded the project end this week, had even took to advising boaters to simply stay away for the time being.

The Yacht Club’s annual events, which would attract skippers from all over the Bay Area, were canceled, as was the annual Christmas Lighted Boat Parade.

City and business representatives, who have long put resulting revenue losses into the millions, were optimistic that river-related tourism now would return at a time when the economy has been suffering under the pandemic shutdown.

“The river is our heritage, it’s what puts us on the map and sets us apart,” said Marie McCusker, executive director of the Petaluma Downtown Association and Visitors Program. “We are delighted to welcome river tourism back. Hopefully businesses will turn around and be more river-facing.”

So much mud had accumulated in recent years that silt-formed embankments became semi-permanent features for boaters and downtown strollers alike – some so large they attracted nicknames and annual hordes of migrating birds.

It’s little surprise, then, that the Sandpiper siphoned more junk than expected, including some odd trash items that slowed down progress. While tires and shopping carts were to be expected, the half-dozen bowling balls, an entire car and part of a gun did raise a few eyebrows.

Stephanie Bastianon, executive director of the Friends of the Petaluma River, said it will take more education to implore the public to maintain the river.

“With access improved, we are looking forward to much needed recreation for the public,” she said. “Our job now is to protect this river. We need to continue to keep it clean.”

Although final numbers are not yet available, City Engineer Gina Benedetti-Petnic said the operation has already hauled 32% more detritus than the 147,000 cubic yard Army Corps of Engineers estimate. So far, crews have cleaned out 194,000 cubic yards of silt and trash from Petaluma’s namesake river – enough to fill more than 1,300 dump trucks. The dredge spoils are pumped to Shollenberger Park, which has been closed since the project began at the beginning of September.

This increased load is also partly to blame for the nearly nine-day closure of the D Street Bridge to pedestrians and motorists, a crucial link that left downtown with bumper-to-bumper traffic for several days.

Benedetti-Petnic said the cross-river bridge had to stay up to allow the dredge and its electric barge to traverse unimpeded as they worked to remove more spoils than anticipated.

But for Matthew MacArthur, project manager and 11-year veteran of the dredging industry, the amount of sludge he and his crews removed wasn’t what surprised him the most over the past few weeks.

“One thing that stands out to me is the community support for this job,” MacArthur said. “That’s not always the case, and it’s been such a boon for us while we’re working. Anytime I’m out there with my hard hat and vest, I’m prepared to answer 50 questions about what we’re doing.”

The excitement has been percolating for a while now, especially among the city’s tourism and business community, who see the renewed river as an opportunity to return to the days of packed docks and even busier downtown streets.

“We need to recognize how important it is to have this resource,” Barrett said. “We need to support the river dependent businesses. Times are tough right now, but our river will be around for a long time.”

Yet even as local dignitaries expressed elation at the prospect of a rejuvenated Petaluma River, the sobering reality that they must now find a way of maintaining the clear waterway was not far from their minds. Officials acknowledged that the federal government is unlikely to maintain its four-year dredging cycle, prompting discussion of a public-private partnership to fund future dredging of North Bay ports.

“We’ve got work to do on a long-term solution,” Huffman said. “We’ve been laying the foundation for that and convening the community of stakeholders. The pieces are in place. We need to be proactive the next time around.”

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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