Feds seek local partners to share Petaluma River dredging cost

August 24, 2015

Faced with a lack of federal funding to complete the long-overdue dredging of the Petaluma River, local officials and business interests are teaming up to look for solutions to unclog the silted slough. Local officials and even federal representatives acknowledge that funding for river dredging is unlikely to come out of Washington in the next three years, and they said private money will have to be used to complete the project.

But businesses that use the river and that have long benefited from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredging project, are reluctant to chip in, saying the expense would erode their profits.

Earlier this month, a coalition of river users and government officials held the latest in a series of meetings at the Petaluma Yacht Club to discuss creative ideas to pay for the dredging project.

“We have some forward momentum,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), who represents Petaluma. “The new approach is to be part of a demonstration project that the Corps is interested in. The more promising model is a partnership with the Corps working with other governments and private parties to get this done. I think we’re on the leading edge of this.”

After years of deferred dredging, the river is so choked with mud and silt that sailboats become stuck in places at low tide. Some yachters, with money to spend at Petaluma’s shops and restaurants, are avoiding the city’s ports fearing damage to their vessels, officials said.

“We want to provide an attractive place for boaters and visitors to come and spend money,” said Tom Corbett, staff commodore of the yacht club. “There are a lot of boats that won’t come here. At times, it’s unsafe to come up here since the river is so shallow. The word is out in the Bay Area that we are becoming difficult to visit.”

The barges that ply the shallow waterway must do so with less-than-full loads of valuable materials, leaving revenue on the table for the local operators.

The river, which is actually a 13-mile tidal slough that empties into San Pablo Bay and historically a vital artery for Petaluma commerce, was normally dredged every four years, but the Corps of Engineers hasn’t completed a proper dredging since 2003 due to lack of funding. Congress appropriated $500,000 last year to plan the project, but the actual dredging work lacks about $7 million.

Some of the ideas discussed include combining regional dredging projects together in one contract to save money, forming a river maintenance district of riverfront property owners and using assessments to fund the dredging, and asking commercial shippers to pay for the project.

That last idea doesn’t sit well with Christian Lind, general manager of Lind Marine, whose family-owned business operates barges along the Petaluma River, shipping sand for construction and oyster shells to be used in chicken feed.

“I don’t feel hopeful about dredging anytime soon,” Lind said. “The Corps is looking for partners. That means they’re looking for local money. It’s the Corps’ responsibility. We can’t chip in to dredge it.”

Because of the choked river, Lind said his barges are restricted to operating at high tide and can only navigate the river at two-thirds capacity.

“It’s been a real problem lately,” he said.

Besides Huffman, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) also attended the recent dredging meeting. Huffman said he will continue to lobby for more Coprs of Engineers funding for the river dredging project. Thompson has become involved since he has two nearby waterways also overdue for dredging — the Martinez Marina and the mouth of the Napa River at Mare Island. Those projects, when grouped with the Petaluma River, the Bodega Bay channel, the San Rafael canal and others, could represent some cost savings in one dredging contract.

“Talking about it regionally makes a lot of sense,” said Austin Vevurka, senior advisor to Thompson. “It’s part of what we are doing to explore cost-sharing measures. There is definitely signs of progress.”

Vevurka said part of the public-private partnership includes selling the mineral-rich dredging spoil to groups restoring the wetlands. In the past, dredging spoils have been dumped at Shollenberger Park.

“I wouldn’t think the Army Corps of Engineers would be able to pay for it all,” he said. “It’s going to have to be a public-private partnership going forward.”

Besides keeping commerce on the river moving, the dredging project also protects the city from floodwaters, officials said. The ongoing maintenance of the creeks that feed into the Petaluma River, part of flood-control efforts, has actually caused more silt to accumulate in the river, leaving riverfront residents more vulnerable to floods.

“The flood-control project is dependent on the ability to move water downstream,” said Mayor David Glass, who attended the recent dredging meeting. “As silt fills up, there’s no way for water to move. We don’t get the benefits of flood control.”

Glass said city officials have talked about forming a benefit assessment district, in which flood-prone property owners would pay into a fund that would go toward dredging the river. But even that approach would rely on leveraging some federal funds to match the local effort, and officials are not hopeful about money coming out of Washington anytime soon.

“This does not reflect on our two congressmen, but this Congress seems content on inactivity,” Glass said.



Source: By Matt Brown