Historically, the Petaluma River served as an important link between the town and the greater Bay Area, transporting food, people and supplies to and from the region.
But the future of the river is at stake following two years of delayed dredging, the clearing out of clay, sand and other material that is deposited as sediment and can create navigational hazards.
Since our little tidal slough was declared a river by Congress in 1959, it has been dredged every four to five years. But as spending by the U.S. Corps of Engineers on navigational dredging has remained stagnant, but costs increased, the work has been put into deferred maintenance like so many other capital improvement projects around the city.
(The last time the river was dredged was in 2006.)
And that means loses to local shipping companies and an increased risk of flooding.
“If you don’t dredge, at some point, it becomes infeasible to continue,” said Christian Lind, owner of Jerico Products, a tugboat and barge company based in Petaluma. “The shallower the river gets, the harder it is for outflow of storm water and the more likely it is to cause flooding.”
Every year, the local division of the Army Corps of Engineers submits a budget to the federal office asking for funding for regional flood control, navigation and other waterway projects. But despite including Petaluma in the plan, no money has been allocated since 2006, according to Jessica Burton Evans, a navigation program manager for the local division of the U.S. Corps of Engineers
“There is a backlog nationwide,” she said. “We don’t have enough funds to maintain our high use channels, let alone our low use channels such as Petaluma.”
Waterways with depths of more than 15 feet and which transport at least 10 million tons of commercial goods per year get top priority. In contrast, the Petaluma River is what’s called a “shallow draft” navigation channel (meaning it’s less than 15 feet deep) and transports less than 500,000 commercial tons a year, according to Burton Evans.
That’s a mere fraction of the load handled by ports in Oakland, Richmond, San Francisco and Los Angeles. And whether we like it or not, that makes it a lesser priority for the federal government.
Without regular dredging, silt—sediment carried by water—accumulates, causing navigational hazards for both barges and recreational craft.
For Jerico and Shamrock Materials, the concrete and building materials company, the delayed dredging has serious implications to their bottom line. That’s because the more shallow the water, the less material that can be put on barges. (Otherwise, they sink too low and get stuck in the river.)
The Corps of Engineers is aware of the concern, Burton Evans said, but has its hands tied.
“We continue to budget for it, but there aren’t enough funds for it,” she said, adding that the city of Petaluma can also pay to have the river dredged. “And if we don’t do it, nature takes its course.”
Are you concerned about the lack of funds to dredge the river? And how do you use the Petaluma River?