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The Petaluma River is more than just the tranquil backdrop for waterfront restaurants or a place for weekend kayaking and bird-watching.

It's a major Bay Area shipping route that has seen a steady increase in commercial traffic over the past two decades.

Barges the length of football fields sail the narrow passage almost daily, bringing sand and rock mined more than 1,000 miles away in Canada to projects along the North Coast.

Tonnage has increased sixfold since 1987, fueled in part by the closure of quarries along the Russian River.

"People don't know how much commerce is happening on this river," said Christian Lind, vice president of operations for Jerico Products Inc., a family business that has run barges and tug boats out of Petaluma for 40 years. "We're hauling 4,000-ton barges just about every day."

But time may be running out on one of the last remaining commercial uses of the river as its namesake city transforms itself from a crumbling wharf town to a quaint tourist destination.

In recent years, Victorian-era warehouses along the banks have been converted to trendy shops and loft-style apartments. Plans for more riverside homes and stores are in the offing.

At the same time, efforts to build a new asphalt plant at the site of an old aggregate company south of town have run into opposition from locals who say it could pose a threat to nearby wetlands.

And precast cement manufacturer Pomeroy Corp. closed its Petaluma operation in 2006, leaving only two river-dependent businesses inside the city limits.

There could come a day when the forces of redevelopment and environmentalism combine to end a chapter in the history of a town founded on its connection to a river.

Inside a dusty tin warehouse beside the river, Jerico president and family patriarch Mitch Lind talked about the future with sons Christian and Aaron Lind.

"The river is a big asset to the North Bay," Mitch Lind said as the current lapped gently at a large tug tied up outside.

"It's the transportation lifeline to Petaluma and Sonoma County," Chris Lind chimed in.

From its mouth at San Pablo Bay to its headwaters 16 miles upstream, the river winds like a snake past rolling hills and tidal marshes, dairy farms and forgotten moorings.

The lower 12 miles flow through southern Petaluma and the largest salt marsh on the West Coast. It's home to ducks and geese and boasts the largest breeding ground for the California Clapper Rail, which is listed as an endangered species.

The upper four miles are mostly unnavigable, branching off into creeks fed by springs and runoff from Sonoma Mountain.

"It's a treasure," said David Yearsley, executive director of Friends of the Petaluma River. "It's used as a benchmark of what a pristine tidal marsh should be."

The pace of shipping on the river belies its perception as a sleepy tidal estuary, while harking back to a time when passenger ships and steamboats plied the blue-green waters.

Before the Golden Gate Bridge was built in 1937, the river was the economic lifeblood of the North Coast as ships carrying produce and farm products steamed between Petaluma and San Francisco.

But with the iconic span providing an avenue for trucks and the increasing popularity of rail freight, people turned away from the river. Downtown warehouses rolled up, and the river banks became a dumping ground for abandoned boats and cars.

A waterfront renaissance began in the 1970s with the renovation of the Great Petaluma Mill. The $100 million Theater District was built in a private-public partnership starting a decade ago.

These days at the downtown turning basin once lined with Victorian-era warehouses, the din from crowded restaurants and bars echoes into the night. People talk about the river as if its days as a major Bay Area shipping lane are long gone.

That's hardly the case.

Last year, an estimated 1.2 million tons of rock, sand and oyster shells sailed up the river on huge barges, compared with 800,000 tons in 2006 and about 200,000 tons in 1987, according to river companies and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

About three-quarters of the material comes to San Francisco from British Columbia on 70,000-ton ships and is then brought up the river on barges.

Jeff Nehmens, chief operations officer and president of Shamrock, said his company buys about a million tons of material a year, trucking it from Petaluma to as far as Cloverdale.

He said business has picked up slowly over about eight years as his company fills a void left by closed quarries.

The Army Corps of Engineers picks up the tab for dredging, keeping the channel open for recreational boating, Nehmens said.

"There would be a huge cost involved in having to foot that bill," he said. "But business is strong."

Lind, whose company has

10 tugs and 25 barges -- some 260-feet long, said business is booming despite the general downturn in the economy.

Jerico transports rock and sand, but also brings up oyster shell from the South Bay that is used in fertilizer and chicken feed.

The imported aggregates are used mostly for road and housing projects, and shipping the material by barge can provide a less expensive and more environmentally conscious form of transportation.

One barge is the equivalent of about 160 big-rig trucks and is 80 percent cheaper, he said.

"If you're worried about greenhouses gases and carbon footprints, it's a huge reduction," said Chris Lind.

The industry coexists with the more than 800 leisure boaters who visit the turning basin each year. Others go to the Petaluma and Lakeville marinas or the Port of Sonoma.

Still, efforts to expand the industry on the Petaluma have run into resistance.

Dutra Materials Inc., a San Rafael-based company that ran a hillside quarry in Petaluma for years, has proposed an asphalt plant at the old Haystack Landing site on the river.

The 24-hour-a-day facility in the unincorporated county would bring materials closer to projects while increasing river traffic.

But concerns about noise, air and water pollution have mobilized opposition. Gerald Moore, chairman of the Petaluma Wetlands Alliance, said people don't want a belching plant across the river from Shollenberger Park, a 165-acre preserve popular among dog walkers and nature lovers.

"We need them on the river as an industry," Moore said. "But we want them to do it in the cleanest, quietest way that's possible. We want them to be as invisible as possible."

Dutra spokeswoman Aimi Dutra did not return calls.

Petaluma City Councilman David Rabbitt said the way land values had been climbing, it might not make sense for heavy industry to remain on the river forever. Already, companies are looking east to places such as Stockton, which has lower prices and a true shipping port.

"Ultimately, the mix in the area will change significantly," Rabbitt said. "It's not going to happen overnight, but it will happen down the line. It's natural."

Meantime, the barges sail on, seemingly unnoticed.

Two minor collisions with abandoned rail trestles earlier this year drew some attention, mostly because of the November oil spill that fouled the San Francisco Bay.

But unlike the Cosco Busan, the material carried on board the barges won't destroy anything, although farmers complain their wake is eroding the land, Yearsley said.

"The fact that we don't have petroleum or chemical products going up and down river is a comfort to me," Yearsley said. "To be on the river and see a barge filling the river from bank to bank is an awesome sight. It harks back to days of railroad."

Jerico officials said in light of their own minor accidents and fallout from the devastating spill, they are taking extra precautions. The company is fabricating a special tugboat that will help its captains navigate tight passes of the Petaluma without incident.

Like the future of its shipping industry, piloting the twisting waterway is a tricky proposition.

"When the wind starts blowing and the vessel is sitting out in front of you 260 feet, it can be a challenge," said Aaron Lind, a licensed tug captain. "It's like a giant sail."

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 762-7297 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.

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