ARGUS-COURIER STAFF | December 10, 2018, 9:09AM
The once mighty Petaluma River, a former hub for commerce and recreation, was once one of the defining features of the southern Sonoma County landscape and a vital link between Petaluma and the San Pablo Bay.
Now, 15 years removed from the last dredging, an 18-mile tributary many residents have dubbed “the heart of the city” has become a muddy, silt-choked slough, with little relief in sight.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a federal agency under the Department of Defense, is supposed to dredge the upper Petaluma River every four years, and the mouth where it meets the bay every three years. The flats channel, which begins beneath the Highway 37 overpass east of Novato, was last dredged in 1998.
For more than a decade, elected officials have been subjected to a hamster-wheel cycle of request, write, lobby and hope, anxiously awaiting word from the USACE that the Petaluma River would make the cut for a federally-funded cleanup.
For now, that wheel will continue to spin.
In the Corps of Engineers’ 2019 work plan, announced Thanksgiving week, the Petaluma River did not get approved for dredging, dealing another major blow that could impact flood control measures and compound revenue losses already being felt by the local economy.
Congressman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who described the project as “the highest priority in my district,” said he was furious when he found out Petaluma was, once again, left off the list.
“We got all the right assurances, we did all the right things,” he said. “We have been setting this up for several years. We were led to believe we were in position to get funding. To once again be bypassed, to me, is unjustifiable and unacceptable.”
Local officials were feeling optimistic after the USACE invested $600,000 over the past year to study the project, preliminary measures that hadn’t been taken since the last dredging, said Jason Beatty, assistant director of Petaluma’s Public Works and Utilities Department.
The agency commissioned a hydrographic survey, performed sediment testing, and pursued the necessary permits and construction documents over the course of several months, beginning in December 2017. To prepare for the city’s share of the project, work began at the local deposit site, Schollenberger Park, where materials are off-hauled.
All that was left was funding for the project, which federal officials estimate will cost $10 million.
“They were encouraging,” Beatty said of his ongoing conversations with the USACE’s project managers. “They thought it would get put on the work plan this year.”
USACE spokesperson Jay Kinberger, the San Francisco district navigation program manager, said the decisions are usually made based on the amount of a value a port provides to the national economy, and “which projects yield the biggest bang for the buck.”
Even though small ports like the Petaluma River are allocated a 10 percent share of funding each cycle, it still has to compete with harbors across the country, Kinberger said. On the opposite end of the spectrum are ports like the Oakland Harbor, for example, which represents the third largest anchorage on the West Coast.
“It’s a hard question,” Kinberger said. “What it really boils down to is the Corps’ budgeting process. Essentially we put in a capability statement for all of our projects. Then through the budgeting process, those are racked and stacked and weighed against each other. Ultimately the decision is made built on capability given scarce resources.”
Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, whose district encompasses the Petaluma River, described the situation as a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” With each funding cycle that passes, the ability for the waterway to multiply the federal investment gets increasingly more difficult.
Commercial tonnage is a fraction of what it was a decade ago, with barges carrying less weight into the silted waters. Since transport habits are now adapting, the Petaluma River’s profile as a commercial route and its contribution to the national economy suffers.
“The longer you put it off, the more expensive it becomes or the more problematic it becomes,” Rabbitt said. “You try to be optimistic.”
In the weeks and months before the work plan was announced, Huffman said he was a “squeaky wheel” in Washington D.C., making calls up the ladder at the Pentagon to try and make the case for the project.
At this point, reeling from the news of a defeat, the congressman said he’s entertaining every possibility to try and figure out how best to approach the issue going forward. In a district heavily skewed toward Democrats, with a reputation for constantly challenging President Trump, there could certainly be a political motive, Huffman said.
“It doesn’t feel right and doesn’t smell right,” he said.
In the absence of maintenance, fewer vessels — commercial or recreational — venture into the waterway, fearful of mud banks and the merciless low tide. As a result, popular events have been canceled, like the 2018 Lighted Boat Parade and the Petaluma Yacht Club’s Memorial Day event, which has now missed the last two years and heavily impacted its fundraising efforts.
In Nov. 2017, Petaluma Yacht Club Commodore McKenzie Smith estimated river traffic provides $1.2 million annually to area businesses.
Marie McCusker, executive director of the Petaluma Downtown Association, said river-related tourism is down about 85 percent. Riverfront locales like Taps and Dempsey’s Restaurant and Brewery are feeling the effects of a lack of dredging year-round now, with patio seats facing a waterway defined by a notorious mud island.
“They are concerned,” McCusker said. “When you have a restaurant on the river, there’s a certain ambiance that goes with it.”
But beyond commerce or slimming retail profits, what worries mayor-elect Teresa Barrett, who promoted river enhancement throughout her campaign, is the taxpayer-funded flood mitigations that become far less effective.
“It’s almost unconscionable that there isn’t money for this issue at the national level, given what we’ve heard from our own country and the (United Nations’) assessment on climate change,” Barrett said. “Any area or city exposed to tidal changes is more vulnerable than others, and in Sonoma County that’s Petaluma.”
The one silver lining is the change in majority of the House of Representatives following this year’s midterm elections. With Huffman serving on the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, which oversees water resource programs at the USACE, officials were confident his role would benefit Petaluma even more over the next two years.
Once the river does, in fact, get dredged, the congressman hopes to establish a potential private-public partnership that would align cities and agencies with disregarded tributaries throughout the North Bay, combining resources and cycling projects in a way that would increase the appeal for USACE funding.
“This community has done all the right things and we’ve done it the right way. You can’t ask anymore,” Huffman said. “I’m not going to roll over and stand for it. We’re going to fight for this.”