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$9.7 million in federal funds arrives for long-awaited Petaluma River dredging

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The Petaluma River, a tidal waterway that has seen boat traffic decline as silt piled up, will be dredged this year for the first time since 2003, rejuvenating a natural resource that for generations was the lifeblood of the community.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be allocating roughly $9.7 million this year to pay for the project, U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, announced Monday. An additional $1.3 million was set aside for preliminary work to eventually dredge the San Rafael Canal.

The Army Corps is supposed to maintain the 18-mile river every four years but has fallen way behind on that commitment.

“I’m just very happy for the people of Petaluma,” Huffman, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Commitee, said in an interview. “They’ve waited a long time.”

With the money now in place, the dredging work could begin as early as June 1 depending on the migration of protected species like steelhead trout that naturally spawn in the watershed, said Jason Beatty, director of Petaluma Public Works and Utilities.

The city council last month approved nearly $2 million for an emergency dredge of the river turning basin and Petaluma Marina in case the Army Corps again passed on doing the work. With the project now covered, the city will use that money on the marina, where the number of vessels leasing space is now less than 40% of capacity, or about half the Bay Area average, Beatty said.

Members of the local boating community were elated by Monday’s news. Leland Fishman, commodore of the Petaluma Yacht Club, said the project could start a “rebirth of our river.”

His organization has canceled popular events like the holiday Lighted Boat Parade in December on the river and yacht club’s Memorial Day party each of the past two years. Combined, those cancellations turned away thousands of annual visitors to Petaluma, he said.

“We can now let the boating community know the Petaluma River is open for business,” Fishman said.

Petaluma Mayor Teresa Barrett said she was “over the moon” when the city was told the dredging project would be included in the upcoming federal civil works budget.

She had collected nearly 3,700 signatures last summer to make a symbolic strong showing of support for dredging when Lt. Col. John Cunningham of the Army Corps made a visit to Petaluma and saw the dire state of the river. More than 100 residents assembled at docks along the river and held signs to show support as a small pontoon boat made its way from the Turning Basin to the Petaluma Marina.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Barrett said. “This is exactly what Petaluma needs right now and certainly what our river needs.”

Conditions along the river channel have increasingly deteriorated in recent years. Built up sediment has trapped numerous boats attempting to navigate the mud-filled water during low tide, and barges hauling cargo have opted for lighter loads to ensure they reach their destination.

As a result, the river’s commercial tonnage, a key metric for prioritizing federal projects, has steadily declined, Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said. He likened it to a “self-fulfilling prophecy” that made federal dollars harder to attract.

Petaluma-based Lind Marine, one of the biggest material haulers on the West Coast, lowered the tonnage on each barge by as much as 30%, President Christian Lind said. Each ship hauls the equivalent of 320 trucks.

“Every ton we can get on the barges to get up here is another truck that stays off the highway and out of our way,” Lind said. “This will allow us to maximize our cargo capacities and use (the river) properly.”

Over the years, $43 million has been poured into curbing flood control risks along the river, and local officials feared those projects could be undone.

“Extremely happy for the Petaluma and south county community,” Rabbitt said. “It makes a huge difference, and we can move forward with all the other flood control issues to keep the river navigable and silt fee.”

The Army Corps invested $600,000 two years ago in preliminary work tied to dredging, commissioning a hydrographic survey, performing sediment testing and pursuing the necessary permits. Petaluma officials began preparing for their share of the project then and established the local deposit site at Shollenberger Park.

But the Army Corps passed on the project in 2019, dealing another blow that further hindered boat-related tourism and stifled recreation despite the construction of two highly-anticipated rental sites for small boats and kayaks near the Petaluma River Turning Basin downtown.

For Huffman, dredging the Petaluma River has been a priority for seven years. While Monday’s announcement did provide a sense of relief, the congressman acknowledged the river and other small harbors in the North Bay still need to find a sustainable model for river maintenance going forward.

“We do need to finish that private-public partnership, get it authorized, get it funded,” Huffman said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of activity on that front.”

Huffman said unlocking additional money from the harbor maintenance trust fund, receiving support from fellow Democrat U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the House transportation and infrastructure committee chair, and the tireless advocacy of the Petaluma community all “aligned to get us the win.”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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