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Getting Creative for River Dredging

Posted on August 28, 2015

A rising tide lifts all boats. That old adage may be true, except in the case of the Petaluma River, where the waterway is so clogged with silt that the largest barges drag along the bottom even at high tide.

The problem has persisted form more than a decade. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has dredged the river every four years since the 1950s, hasn’t had funding to carry out the work since 2003.

Meanwhile, the river has become so choked with mud that boats get stuck on exposed sandbars at low tide.

It has become a problem both to the local economy and the safety of riverfront homes and businesses. Due to the shallow water, the commercial shippers that ply the Petaluma River — Lind Marine (formerly Jerico), Shamrock and Dutra — are sending their barges half-full. The recreational yachters, who come up river from the Bay Area and spend money in Petaluma’s shops and restaurants, are now avoiding the city for fear of damaging their vessels.

The silted slough also renders the multi-million dollar flood-control project up river less effective. The terracing of the upper river, the flood walls and the maintenance of the creeks that feed into the Petaluma River, were designed to move water more efficiently, but with the river backed up at the turning basin, downtown properties are at risk of flooding. River dredging is a vital piece of the flood-control efforts. If it doesn’t happen, the risk of flooding increases, especially in times of heavy rain like is expected this winter.

Blame for the problem lies squarely with Congress, which, year after year, has voted against adequate funding for the Corps of Engineers to dredge all of the ports, canals and rivers in its jurisdiction. As a result, the Corps has had to prioritize those shipping channels that are the most vital to the nation’s economy — mostly large ports like Oakland and Los Angeles — while small waterways like the Petaluma and Napa rivers become impassable.

Unlike the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for upkeep of the nation’s road network and is nearly insolvent due to declining gas tax revenue, the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is flush with about $1.8 billion that it receives annually. But lately Congress has only appropriated a fraction of that. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) and Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) have both been trying unsuccessfully to push the anti-spending, tea party-minded Congress for more Corps funding to dredge the Petaluma and Napa rivers.

In lieu of federal funding, local governments and private river users have come together to craft some creative ideas to help fund the $7 million project. This collaboration is refreshing to see, but we hope it is only a temporary necessity and not a long-term strategy that lets Congress escape its fiscal mandate to fund river and port maintenance.

One idea being floated is getting river users to help pay for the dredging project, as they will get the most benefit from a clear shipping channel. Barge operators will argue, and rightly so, that it’s the federal government’s job to fund the project using the tax dollars that they already pay. But they may want to consider contributing more as an investment. After all, once the river is dredged and their boats can carry full loads, their profits will go up.

Another interesting idea would be to use money from the city. While Petaluma has enough unfunded infrastructure projects of its own to fill a barge, the money could come from a new assessment on riverfront properties. Since potentially flood-prone businesses and residents along the river would benefit the most from dredging, they should be willing to use a portion of their property tax for the project. Consider it preventative flood insurance.

Bemoaning the lack of federal funding is not going to help break the logjam in Washington, nor will it unclog the artery that has been the city’s lifeblood since its founding. While waiting for Congress to act, we must help ourselves. We encourage local officials and river users to continue the dialogue that hopefully will lead to the river finally getting dredged.

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