North Bay cities need options for dredging

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Recently, about 60 officials representing more than a dozen stakeholder groups gathered at the Petaluma Yacht Club for a community forum on North Bay dredging projects, convened by Congressman Jared Huffman.

Though mocked by an afternoon high tide, everyone agreed that to survive as waterside cities, communities on the San Pablo Bay waterways need to find a viable alternative to single-project dredging. In August, the Argus-Courier reported that Petaluma, San Rafael, Marin County, the Sonoma County Water Agency and the Napa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District joined forces to hire a consultant to work out details on alternative public/private financing for an innovative solution — near-constant, round-robin dredging of the Petaluma River, the Napa River and the San Rafael Canal.

Seated with Huffman were Deputy District Engineer for Project Management at the Army Corps of Engineers Arijs Rakstins; Director of Petaluma’s Public Works & Utilities Department Dan St. John; Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who is also the director of the Sonoma County Water Agency; and Scott Bodensteiner, the project leader on sediments at Haley & Aldrich, Inc., the consultant on this pilot project.

In his presentation, Bodensteiner framed a hybrid partnership with some level of private or local investment that would fund a cost-neutral 20-year agreement, with each waterway dredged approximately every five years.

Why can’t the Corps afford to dredge every three to seven years as in the past? Rakstins pointed out that funding hasn’t increased over the past couple of decades, so the Corps can’t meet its mandate with the dollars it’s allocated; two-thirds of its annual budget goes to maintaining rivers, harbors, lakes and reservoirs. In our area, deep-water harbors like Oakland and Richmond are prioritized for their importance to commercial shipping.

As St. John pointed out, we need to begin thinking of dredging as a utility, rather than a one-off project contracted only when needed.

“We don’t serve our water that way … we don’t take out our garbage that way. These are continuous operations with organizations behind them. You have an expectation that when you put that gray can on the curb, it gets picked up. It should be no different for dredging the river.”

According to Bodensteiner, this new vision may require the partnership to purchase an offloader for moving dredge spoils to “beneficial reuse” sites. Petaluma has Shollenberger Park, but the passage of the historic Measure AA, which levies a $12 parcel tax in all nine Bay Area counties to produce $500 million over 20 years for restoring local wetlands, means money may be available to move waterway mud to wetlands.

Amy Hutzel, Deputy Executive Officer of the State Coastal Conservancy, said, “I don’t think Measure AA funds will go towards dredging these channels, but I think they could aid in the beneficial use portion of dredging projects.”

In other words, there’s a whole new market for mud. The first grant applications will be accepted in September 2017, and the first funds dispersed in January 2018. Steven Carroll, the regional engineer from Ducks Unlimited, described Cullinan Ranch and Skaggs Island as ideal beneficial reuse sites, which without spoils would recover slowly, but covered with nutrient-rich silt can become valuable habitats in just four to eight years.

What if we don’t band together? It’s a frightening thought. The Corps’ Rakstins upheld the example of the San Leandro Channel, which he described as “a single-user channel with no real economic value. It’s no longer dredged because it doesn’t have multiple benefits.”

As a group, with locals in each area putting skin in the game, the Petaluma and Napa Rivers and the San Rafael Canal can both fill the newly created need for sediment and act as a regular client for dredging contractors. The suggestion was that if our communities sign an agreement that can entice the Corps to finance the first dredging 100 percent, with the understanding that going forward we will help manage our own “utility,” Petaluma may finally be able to climb out of the mud.

(Maggie Hohle moved her family from the East coast to Petaluma in 2007 and immediately fell in love with rowing on the Petaluma River thanks to the North Bay Rowing Club. She spends her spare time working towards river access for all on “Petaluma’s Longest Park.”)

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