Petaluma River advocates look at tax to fund dredging

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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.

Congressman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, has been the project’s biggest advocate in Washington D.C., and raised the issue at a congressional committee hearing in April, drawing attention to the dredging woes of small ports like the Petaluma River and San Rafael Canal.

“We should just end the charade and create a new category for ports the Army Corps has simply forgotten about or left behind,” he said at the hearing. “This system is not working, and is in fact insulting to communities that play by the rules and still lose every year, every single time.”

Huffman was unavailable this week to comment on STORM’s proposal.

City Councilwoman Kathy Miller agreed that Petaluma needs to take over river maintenance, and was cognizant of how local voters might feel about yet another potential ballot measure in 2020. But going to voters in the March primary when competition might be scarce could benefit this type of campaign, she said.

“I think going out in March is a good idea for something like this because, with a special tax, you’re obviously held to a higher threshold (for approval), and I think there’s going to be a lot of interest in the presidential primary,” she said. “There’s going to be a ton of stuff in November 2020, so it’s not a bad idea if they can get their ducks in a row.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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