Regional dredging partnership taking shape

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An unprecedented regional partnership to dredge several neglected river channels connecting to San Pablo Bay is now taking shape, offering new hope for removing the accumulating mud that increasingly chokes the Petaluma River.

With Petaluma as the lead agency, the collaborative spanning Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Solano counties would bundle a number of dredging efforts together to lower overall costs while raising the project’s attractiveness for federal support, the city’s top public works official outlined on Monday. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is supposed to keep several waterways in those areas clear using federal dollars, but has fallen more than 10 years behind schedule in Petaluma alone due to limited funding and competing priorities.

The idea has attracted tentative interest as a possible “poster child” for a new approach by the Corps, where local agencies play a greater role in facilitating and even helping to fund the work than in years past, said Dan St. John, Petaluma’s director of public works.

“They are looking for better ideas, so that they can accomplish their federal mandate for less money,” he said.

A vote by the Petaluma City Council on Monday would have been the first official legislative action around the idea, which has been the subject of informal discussion since the summer of 2015. Petaluma would pitch in $12,000 in a six-way split to hire a consultant to refine the proposal by this summer, when the city would join representatives from San Rafael, Marin County, Vallejo, the Napa County Flood Control District and the Sonoma County Water Agency in making their pitch to the Corps.

Council members asked that the language be modified to make it more clear that Petaluma would not be on the hook for the entire $65,300 consultant cost if those other partners bowed out. The item is now expected to be up for another vote later this month.

In general, the new approach would save overall costs by having dredging crews embark on a single regional project. Those companies have historically charged to mobilize their equipment for each individual job.

Participants would coordinate on the disposal of dredge material, which could be used for purposes like raising shorelines around the San Francisco Bay in anticipation of rising sea levels, St. John said. The partnership would look to sell the dredge spoils to further offset costs.

A potential scenario would have the Corps fully funding an initial round of dredging in the region, and local agencies paying for subsequent maintenance over a certain period using a possible combination of public and private funding, according to a city council report. The specifics of the strategy will be a central focus of the consultant’s work.

Cost estimates to dredge the Petaluma River, a 13-mile tidal slough used by commercial and recreational vessels, have varied. A Corps estimate in May of last year pegged the job at between $6.5 million and $9 million.

As a major force behind the new approach, Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who represents Petaluma, acknowledged that times have changed from when federal dollars were a reliable source for maintaining the city’s eponymous waterway every four to six years.

“I’m going to keep working on the old school (Corps of Engineers) approach, but the years keep passing. There are a lot of demands on a diminishing pot of money, and it’s very frustrating. I feel like we have to pursue both paths, but the alternative path may get it done faster,” Huffman said.

Joining the Petaluma River in the broader project are the San Rafael Canal, the Napa River and the Mare Island Strait.

St. John noted that the Corps recently received authorization to dredge parts of the Napa River later this year. Yet that one-time event was unlikely the herald of ongoing federal dredging for Napa and, for that matter, its regional neighbors like Petaluma, he said.

“I should stress that this program is intended to be a program of 12 to 20 years, not a single event,” he said.

Last dredged in 2003 and on a partial basis for emergency flood control in 2006, the Petaluma River has increasingly attracted a reputation for the mud piling up in its shallow depths. Commercial users have said their barges must now carry less weight to avoid dragging on the bottom, and horror stories from recreational boaters are now common.

The situation comes in contrast to a revival of the river as an aesthetic, ecological and recreational asset in Petaluma, a waterway that for much of the city’s history was considered more of an industrial afterthought. New development increasingly opens itself to the riverfront, and river-centric proposals like a floating small craft rental center in the downtown turning basin have attracted significant interest.

Council members broadly agreed that the river’s conditions have profoundly declined, with Councilman Gabe Kearney also lamenting that political deadlock in Washington has reportedly left money on the table for dredging while forcing cities like Petaluma to play a larger role for what is traditionally a federal responsibility.

“As a result, we have to come up with these funny loopholes, and funny new ways of funding stuff that has never been done before,” he said.

St. John said the study may well show that the regional partnership was not in the participants’ best interest, but that it would be impossible to know without going forward. If successful, the collaboration could lead to dredging of the river in approximately two years.

Even two more years of waiting was a foreboding prospect for some.

“The need is beyond critical at this point. I can’t imagine what conditions will be like in two years,” said Councilman Mike Healy.

(Matt Brown contributed to this report. Contact Eric Gneckow at eric.gneckow@arguscourier.com. On Twitter @Eric_Reports.)

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