AC Editorial: Overdue river funds here at last

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After a seemingly endless string of disappointing headlines out of Washington, finally some good news: We have received funding to dredge the Petaluma River.

Just let that sink in for a moment.

The $9.7 million in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funding is 13 years overdue, and the river has become nearly unnavigable in places. For reclaiming the waterway for commercial and recreational boat traffic, which will significantly improve Petaluma’s economy, we need to thank the tireless efforts of our elected officials, including Rep. Jared Huffman and Mayor Teresa Barrett.

For years, Huffman has lobbied the Corps to include the Petaluma River dredging project in its annual work plan. The federal agency, which has traditionally kept the river clear of mud and silt every four years, hasn’t dredged here since 2003.

In the past year, Barrett became intimately involved, investing considerable political capital in the effort. A strong advocate for the river, Barrett gathered thousands of signatures in the mayor’s “Dredge Pledge,” which she personally delivered to the regional Corps of Engineer’s chief on a tour she hosted with Huffman last summer.

The dredging project, which is set to kick off later this year, will improve the river and the city in several ways.

First, recreational boats, including yachts and small craft like kayaks and canoes, will have an easier time navigating the river once it is devoid of sandbars and shoals. The lack of dredging has forced the Petaluma Yacht Club in recent years to cancel events, including the Lighted Boat Parade, a holiday tradition.

These events bring tourists to town, who spend money at local shops and restaurants. The Petaluma Small Craft Center, which is under construction in the Turning Basin, will be another tourist draw, renting out human-powered craft for visitors to enjoy the river free of debris.

Second, commercial shipping on the river, which dates back to the founding of Petaluma, can resume at capacity. Local company Lind Marine has been forced to send its barges at 30% of capacity in the shallow river, requiring more trips and eating into its bottom line.

Each barge takes 320 trucks off the road, so the more commerce we can send to the greater Bay Area via the river means less traffic on Highway 101 and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Finally, the dredged river will work in concert with the $40 million in flood protection measures that have taken place on the upper Petaluma River. All of the terracing and floodwalls designed to protect the city and move water down river will only lead to flooding downtown until the silt and debris are removed from the lower river.

The $9.7 million has bought Petaluma four years of smooth sailing. But this experience has taught us that we need to be self reliant. We should not count on the feds to maintain the river on a dependable cycle.

While we applaud our leaders for getting this dredging project funded, we must continue to look at creative ways to fund future dredging work.

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