Petaluma River advocates look at tax to fund dredging
It’s been nearly 15 years since the Petaluma River was last dredged, and a group of citizens are tired of waiting on the federal government to clean it up, eager to take the health of the waterway back into the community’s hands.
A new organization called STORM, shorthand for Sustainably Take Over River Maintenance, is launching a public campaign to get a measure on next year’s ballot that would assess a nominal monthly fee to properties citywide, and give Petaluma complete autonomy over its dredging projects.
According to STORM’s organizers, the goal is to make the dredging program self-sustaining and establish partnerships with neighboring cities that also have neglected small ports, leveraging those agreements to reduce costs for Petaluma.
STORM co-founder Jeff Mayne, a longtime Petaluma mortgage broker connected to several community organizations, presented the concept at the Petaluma Woman’s Club last week. With a vision for restoring vital commerce and recreation, Mayne said the objective of the campaign is to resuscitate a river that has long been referred to as “the heart of the city.”
“We’ve got a problem that has become dire, and we need to fix that problem. Maybe we need to fix it ourselves,” he said.
The dredging program would operate under a public-private partnership similar to the city’s business and tourism improvement districts that self-assess themselves, receive annual public scrutiny, and are managed by various community stakeholders, Mayne said.
The maintenance work would occur every eight years and is estimated to cost about $7.5 million. To generate the $78,125 needed each month, the proposed River Enhancement Assessment District would collect fees from the owners of single-family homes, mobile homes, multi-family properties and commercial businesses citywide, charging approximately $1.50, $3, $6 and $7, respectively.
The dredging pitch is contingent on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers returning for one final cleanup in 2020.
Petaluma officials are currently taking steps to try to realize that goal, opening dialogue with federal agencies to garner more attention for the project, especially now that smaller ports receive less funding, said City Manager Peggy Flynn.
She applauded the creativity of the river district proposal, but was hesitant to embrace it given the city’s competing needs for taxpayer dollars, and the upcoming public campaign this fall that will likely result in a different ballot measure.
“I don’t know if we’ve landed on a solution yet, but we’re cautiously optimistic that we will find one,” Flynn said of the dredging proposal. “Historically, we’ve always needed federal funding. But long-term we need some sort of partnership to not have to rely on that federal funding.”
Two years ago, the USACE invested $600,000 to complete all the necessary preliminary work, including cornerstone environmental analysis, giving local officials optimism that Petaluma would make the project list for 2019.
However, the Army Corps passed once again, guaranteeing at least one more year of silt buildup throughout the river.
In the absence of dredging, many businesses along the waterway have faced compounding losses, and numerous marquee events like the Petaluma Yacht Club’s Memorial Day fundraiser and the holiday Lighted Boat Parade have been canceled due to the unnavigable waters.
According to the USACE, the upper Petaluma River is supposed to be dredged every four years, and the mouth where it meets the San Pablo Bay every three. The flats channel, which begins beneath the Highway 37 overpass east of Novato, was last dredged in 1998.