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Thread: Stuck In Petaluma Again

  1. #1
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    Stuck In Petaluma Again

    The Chronicle's Steve Rubenstein Reports On the lack of water under the hull for boats in the once thriving Petaluma River:

    What could be the last pleasure boat to depart downtown Petaluma left very carefully the other afternoon.

    Exactly 5 feet of water was beneath the hull of the Sea Witch as it inched away from the dock for a 20-minute voyage nearly as treacherous as the rounding of Cape Horn.

    “There’s a big bump of mud over there,” said captain Bob Boynton, his hand firmly on the tiller. “And another big bump of mud over there.”

    There are big humps of mud everywhere on the Petaluma River, the 18-mile-long body of water that connects downtown Petaluma to San Pablo Bay. The narrow waterway is supposed to be dredged every four years. It hasn’t been dredged since 2003. Avast, says the Army Corps of Engineers, there’s no money right now to do such work.

    So year after year, as the river grows ever shallower, fewer and fewer boats venture to the once-thriving waterfront of downtown Petaluma. The barge that once brought bay oyster shells for the world famous chickens of Petaluma to nibble on stopped running two years ago. Other barges run with half loads and crossed fingers.

    For this Veterans Day celebration, which once drew scores of vessels, only five recreational sailors were bold enough, or misguided enough, to weave their way upriver, through the mudbanks, with one eye on the tide tables and the other on the depth gauge.

    Boynton of Richmond was one of those who braved it. He made it to the downtown dock where the inevitable happened. At night, at low tide, his boat got stuck in the mud. He had to wait for the rising tide to lift the 30-foot Sea Witch free.

    The downtown docks are now empty and forlorn. There is still a Petaluma Yacht Club, in theory, but the clubhouse is almost always deserted, its jukebox dusty and unplugged. The commodores of the Petaluma club no longer keep their boats in Petaluma, because commodores have a thing about not getting into shipwrecks.

    “I moved mine to Isleton in the delta,” said staff commodore McKenzie Smith. “Had to.”

    It could be a bleak Christmas.

    For the first time ever, Smith was forced to cancel the annual lighted boat parade, which traditionally draws thousands of tourists to the waterfront. The only boats expressing interest in parading this year were rowboats and kayaks. At the last lighted boat parade, one fancy power boat got tangled up with the river bottom and sustained $20,000 worth of damage. The boat’s captain said he wasn’t coming back.

    Santa Claus, who usually rides into Petaluma on one of the lighted boats, will be taking this Christmas off. A different Santa Claus will show up on a tugboat blasting its way through the mud. That’s the only boat ride the Santa Clauses of Petaluma can bank on.

    Sue Cho, who runs Dempsey’s Restaurant & Brewery overlooking the dock, isn’t too happy about losing the string of lighted boats.
    “It’s our biggest day of the year,” she said. “We usually have a line out the door. This is going to cost us thousands.”

    Elias Ghattas owns the nearby River Front Cafe. Now it’s a cafe, he said, without a riverfront.

    “There’s no boats,” Ghattas said. “Nothing. Everyone is disappointed. When people come to a river, they expect to see boats.”

    Marie Indiana remembered, as a kid, watching the D Street drawbridge go up and down. But a drawbridge only goes up and down to let boats pass.

    “I’ve been here 22 years,” Indiana said, sitting by the riverbank with her black puppy. “There are less boats every year. You used to see the drawbridge go up all the time. Not any more.”

    What’s left of the river meanders beneath the John Balshaw River Walk Bridge. That bridge has a brass plaque on it, from its dedication in 1989, recognizing the “significance of the turning basin to the ... future of Petaluma.”

    That was in 1989. Nobody is putting up brass plaques about the significance of the Petaluma waterfront anymore. A huge island of mud sits in the middle of the river, like a giant beached whale. At high tide, the whale disappears. At low tide, the whale returns, ready to gobble up boats like the whale in “Pinocchio.”

    It’s now possible to wade across the Petaluma River and keep your torso dry. Not long ago, dozens of people held hands in a human chain across the river. The photograph was supposed to spur action. It didn’t.

    With little else for a Petaluma commodore to do these days, Smith got in his car and drove along the mud-choked Petaluma River to console himself. Things could be worse. At the long-abandoned Port Sonoma, they were. There is no longer a port at Port Sonoma. Scores of boat slips rest atop a sea of mud. At the Bahia waterfront neighborhood of Novato, there was no waterfront and no water, replaced by a vast expanse of tall reeds and plants.

    “We’re looking at the future of Petaluma, if someone doesn’t do something,” the commodore said, poking at the reeds.

    Dredging the river will cost about $10 million, said Justin Yee, a project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is charged with keeping rivers open and navigable. The Petaluma River is among a dozen or so Northern California projects awaiting funding.
    “There’s a finite amount of money,” Yee said. “It’s uncertain.”

    Yee said about $600,000 has been awarded for preliminary studies of the dredging that everyone acknowledges needs to be done. The $10 million for the actual dredging is “waiting for a final approval,” a process that has gone on for more than a decade.

    So for now, any trip in or out of Petaluma is fraught with peril. Wise sailors make sure they have fresh batteries in their depth gauge.

    The other morning, the exodus of the five bold holiday boaters was delayed. They had hoped to leave on the morning high tide, but the bridge tender who was supposed to raise the D Street bridge wasn’t there and wasn’t answering the radio. There are so few boats on the Petaluma River that a bridge tender is rarely needed to tend.

    Rick Morris thwarted the drawbridge that wouldn’t draw by turning his boat around and heading back to the Petaluma dock. The brief window of time during which the Petaluma River passes for being passable had elapsed.

    “I’d have ended up in the mud,” Morris said. “Any time a boater comes into Petaluma he’s sticking his neck out.”

    Morris, Boyton and the other boaters had little choice but to wait an additional 12 hours, until the moon and the Earth did their celestial dance and the water level rose. The beached whale disappeared and the depth gauge registered barely 5 feet. Now, though, for a few moments, the waterfront of downtown Petaluma was passable.

    This time, they rang up the bridge tender and made an official appointment, lest their visit to Petaluma stretch to next Christmas season.

    Precisely at 4 p.m., the small flotilla made its getaway, at the respectable walking pace of 2 knots. From the stern of the Sea Witch, Boyton said that, without dredging, this might be the last time he and his wife, Gay, make the trip.

    The mighty D Street drawbridge, and then the SMART train span, pivoted up into sky, like giant praying mantises. Boynton, not wanting to risk dodging the rest of the mud bumps in the enveloping darkness, pulled the Sea Witch into the small marina at the Sheraton Hotel and tied up for the night. The rest of the trip to Richmond could wait until morning. Elapsed distance, 1 mile.

    “We made it out of Petaluma,” Boynton said. “That’s far enough for today.’’

    Steve Rubenstein is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @SteveRubeSF
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  2. #2
    They need to claim that the Petaluma River mud possesses some magical healing/beauty power and package it and sell it to tourists.


  3. #3
    E scows can still sail it, right?

  4. #4
    Works in the shallow waters of the Mid West, so why not?

  5. #5
    Headed Offshore
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    Actually the Petaluma "River" we see and think of is a 12 mile tidal slough running from downtown Petaluma's turning basin to Black Point where it enters San Pablo Bay. Until 1959 is was officially Petaluma Slough on maps. The name was changed to "River" because the US Army Corps of Engineers dredges "rivers" but not "sloughs." It took an act of Congress. The "river" part is really a small creek that rises near Penngrove and flows down to sea level very quickly. Although short, this "river" during heavy rains carries large quantities of runoff silt and dirt, which gets deposited in the "slough" because except for tidal movement; there's no current to carry the spoils downstream.

    The Petaluma River estuary is the largest remaining "sort of" untouched estuary in California, but even it has been altered by dikes and dredging to make access from San Pablo Bay to Petaluma easier. If you know where the Vallejo Adobe State Park is, you might be interested to know General Vallejo built it as a warehouse because originally the main fork of the Petaluma Slough ran all the way there. Dredging moved the main fork to downtown Petaluma and the turning basin. If you're interested in helping the Petaluma River, you can Google "The Friends of the Petaluma River" for information. There's not much commercial traffic on the river and the Corps of Army Engineers isn't much interested in making it possible for a private yacht to make it way up and back.

  6. #6
    Very good info. I suspected there was never really a river there.

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