Press Democrat

Water streamed out near the cutter head of a 74-foot ship anchored in the Petaluma River Friday afternoon, and in a matter of hours it will begin pummeling silt that’s been accumulating beneath the surface for many years.

The 18-mile waterway links Sonoma County’s second-largest city to the San Pablo Bay, and on its best days was an active commercial and recreational channel with barges hauling materials and boats carrying tourists.

In recent years, however, the once-booming river has been reduced to a mud-choked slough, susceptible to the will of tides that have sometimes trapped watercraft that got more than they bargained for on a trip to Petaluma.

Sandpiper, an electric-powered suction dredge and its 14,000-foot pipeline, made the journey from Santa Barbara to change that.

This weekend, crews will begin an estimated two-month project to remove 150,000 cubic yards of sediment from the Petaluma River, starting a $9.7 million job that’s 13 years overdue for its federal-funded cleanup.

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A buoy at low tide in the turning basin of the Petaluma River in Petaluma, California on Friday, August 2, 2019. (BETH SCHLANKER/The Press Democrat)
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People hold signs supporting the dredging the Petaluma River at an event hosted by Petaluma Mayor Teresa Barrett for Rep. Jared Huffman and US Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Col. John D. Cunningham to tour the Petaluma River in Petaluma, California on Friday, August 2, 2019. (BETH SCHLANKER/The Press Democrat)
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Local and federal officials gathered Friday afternoon to tour the vessels that will bring relief to a waterway that, in the absence of routine maintenance, has led to millions of dollars of lost revenue for the local economy.

“I never imagined it would’ve taken so long, and I did wonder at times if this day would ever come,” said U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. “But to finally be here is fantastic.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has maintained the Petaluma River for decades, tasked with cleaning the shallow draft channel so barges that once were a mainstay in south county could transport goods in and out of the area.

The agency is supposed to dredge the river every four years, but the last time was in 2003. The channel near the mouth of the San Pablo Bay needs cleaning every three years, but it was last dredged in 1998.

For years, officials tried to attract the federal money to do it but fell short. As a result, commercial tonnage declined and the river’s standing as a valued economic tributary fell, making the likelihood of a dredge more distant

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%. Each ship hauls the equivalent of 320 trucks.

The Army Corps began showing interest in late 2017 when it invested $600,000 in preliminary studies and testing. But it wasn’t until February that years of lobbying in Washington, D.C., and even citizen-led campaigns, paid off, and the federal government allocated funding, energizing a community that for years had felt disregarded.

For the officials touring Sandpiper and the deposit site at Shollenberger Park, Friday was a celebration.

After months sheltering indoors because of the pandemic, and weeks of wildfires that ravaged the west county, it was hard for county Supervisor David Rabbitt not to get sentimental.

“It’s really just a positive thing in a time when we need it,” he said.

San Diego-based Pacific Dredge was awarded the nearly $10 million contract. Work will occur 24 hours a day to meet an ambitious timeline set by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who gave the contractor 89 days to complete the project without harming a host of sensitive species like delta smelt and steelhead, said Justin Yee, the Army Corps’ project manager for the San Francisco district.

The projected completion date is expected Oct. 21.

Sandpiper's cutter head will break up sediment, then it will be sucked up and transported through a pipeline to Shollenberger Park where bulldozers and construction crews will spread the material. Petaluma officials closed the park until Nov. 1.

The project will go south through the marshes and toward the San Pablo Bay before returning to the city riverfront around Sept. 26 to clear the Petaluma Marina area and the Turning Basin downtown.

The mudflats that have become a mainstay in the river’s downtown corridor soon will be a remnant of the
past, and local traditions like the holiday Lighted Boat Parade and the Petaluma Yacht Club’s Memorial Day event now can return after years of cancellations.

A dredged river also could spur long-awaited developments like the Petaluma Small Craft Center’s Community Boathouse. And ecological training and youth engagement can be revived so future generations can learn how to be stewards, said Elizabeth Howland, co-founder of the Friends of the Petaluma River nonprofit.

“It’s significant to the watershed, the estuary, all the life that depends on this water,” she said. “And also to our human need to connect with nature. This river is our outdoor playground.”

Petaluma Mayor Teresa Barrett echoed Rabbitt’s sentiment that Friday’s tour was a rare chance to celebrate in a year that has been mired with hardships.

She launched a so-called Dredge Pledge campaign last year, and gave Lt. Col. John Cunningham, the Army Corps’ San Francisco commander, a petition with 3,700 signatures when he toured the river just four days into his new post.

More than a year later, Cunningham recalled that visit fondly on Friday, grateful to the hundreds of Petalumans who lined docks along the river and showed him the value of these types of waterways to the communities around them, he said.

And for Barrett, to see the continued efforts bear fruit was a reminder that government systems still do respond to dedicated and persistent movements.

“It does remind you, don’t give up,” she said.


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