Rep. Jared Huffman, Army Corps commander tour Petaluma River that's overdue for dredging

Sitting at the end of a pontoon boat Friday morning, three government officials huddled around a map of the Petaluma River, pointing to the sites that could play a role in a long-awaited dredging project for the tidal waterway, now 12 years behind schedule.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, and Petaluma Mayor Teresa Barrett did most of the talking, schooling Lt. Col. John Cunningham of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that for decades has overseen maintenance of the once booming commercial route.

It was Cunningham’s first visit to Petaluma as the new commander of the Corps’ San Francisco District. Friends of the Petaluma River, the local nonprofit, hosted a tour for him and Huffman at low tide, traveling through silt-choked waters that were no more than a few feet deep.

The visit gave federal representatives a first-hand look at the increasingly dire navigation conditions on the 18-mile river, with local officials hoping to convince Cunningham to list the project for the Corps’ 2020 work plan.

The request is for one final federally-funded cleanup. After that, the city could take maintenance, part of a now-nationwide trend as smaller ports pass out of federal hands to local control.

“They have a euphemistic name for places like the Petaluma River in the lexicon of the Army Corps of Engineers,” Huffman said. “They call them emerging ports, which is really a joke because ports like the Petaluma River have been effectively abandoned.

“I don’t think there’s a community in America that’s done a better job indicating the need - doing it in a positive, constructive and patient way - and yet had to wait so long on something that’s so urgent.”

Nearly 100 residents rallied Friday above the Petaluma Yacht Club dock where the tour departed, a show of support that capped a monthlong campaign by Barrett to collect signatures and emphasize the community’s desire for the project.

Additional “Dredge Pledge” supporters lined numerous docks along the river, holding signs and cheering as the boat passed on its journey to the Petaluma Marina.

Before departing, Barrett gave Cunningham a binder with nearly 3,700 signatures. The handoff took place as both stood on a tilted dock, one end raised by the growing mud bank beneath it.

“With the current state of siltation, boats have not been able to navigate the river into our turning basin for the last five years,” Barrett said. “This has dealt a heavy blow to our downtown economy and poses a flood danger to our riverside neighborhoods and businesses, and threatens the health of our wetlands.”

The main river channel is supposed to be dredged every four years, while the terminal end that links to the San Pablo Bay is supposed to be cleaned every three years. Both are overdue by more than that, the former last dredged in 2003 and the latter in 1998.

According to a press release, the Army Corps selects projects for study, design or construction each year based primarily on use for commercial navigation, flood and storm damage reduction and ecosystem restoration. Last year’s work plan totaled nearly $7 billion.

Even though small ports like the Petaluma River are allocated a 10% share of funding each cycle, such ports still must compete with harbors across the country, Cunningham said. The district lobbies for the needs and capabilities of the area, but the final determination is based on the best investment for the dollars available, he said.

A decision on the 2020 work plan is expected by December.

“I’ve heard a lot about this project, and had great communication from the city here and local stakeholders,” Cunningham said after the tour. “It was great to see the project and what the current conditions are. I really do appreciate the engagement and the level of participation from the public here. They’ve been phenomenal.”

Over the years, $43 million has been poured into curbing flood control risks along the river. The Army Corps has also invested $600,000 in preliminary work tied to dredging, commissioning a hydrographic survey, performing sediment testing, and pursuing the necessary permits.

The city has prepared for its share of the project, prepping the local deposit site at Shollenberger Park.

Federal officials estimate the dredging project would cost $10 million. If funding is approved, the district has all the pieces in place to execute, Cunningham said.

In the absence of dredging, commercial traffic on the river has dropped sharply - harming the waterway’s standing among ports competing for federal dollars.

Companies including Lind Marine and Shamrock Materials have brought barges into the river with increasingly smaller loads and only at high tide, creating a greater reliance on truck transport as a means to stay viable.

River tourism has also declined dramatically in recent years, compounding revenue losses for waterfront businesses and impacting several downtown organizations with longstanding events tied to the river.

“Our decreasing ability to move tonnage in and out of this river is killing us,” said Huffman, who serves on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that oversees the Army Corps. “It puts us further behind in competition for priority. If we can break that cycle, I think we can bring more tonnage back.”

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