Petaluma begins long-awaited river dredging project

The North Bay is getting a popular waterway back.

Beginning Friday night, and for three weeks non-stop, the Petaluma River is being dredged.

It's the first time in 20 years and 13 years overdue.

"We get to celebrate something in the midst of the wildfires and the pandemic," said an ecstatic Rep. Jared Huffman. 

"From the minute I arrived as Congressman in this district almost 8 years ago, I began hearing about problems with the Petaluma River."

The Army Corp. of Engineers and the contractor answered questions from Huffman and other elected officials on a river tour to see the 75- foot dredging ship. 

"Within a month we are going to see downtown Petaluma transformed," enthused Huffman.

For the first time in years, boats will be able to go out, regardless of the tide from San Pablo Bay, and skippers won't have to worry about getting stuck.

"Right now, you have to have a flat-bottom boat, a kayak or canoe," said Elizabeth Howland, board member for Friends of the Petaluma River.

The 14-year old organization advocates for river conservation and education, and has helped lead the drive for dredging.

"It may look like a river when the tide is in, but in the middle it's only a few feet deep," said Howland.

She welcomes a river with more access and better habitat, plus the recreational boaters who will again make Petaluma a destination.  

"It's Labor Day weekend and there's no one in the turning basin with their boats tied up so it's a huge impact on the businesses downtown."

Howland adds, the 18 mile river is a big part of Petaluma's personality. 

"We have a lighted boat parade every Christmas holiday season and we haven't been able to do that, it really is the heart of the community."

The Sandpiper is an electric-powered dredge brought from Southern California for the project.

"We can pump between 12,000 and 18,000 gallons of water a minute," explained one employee, to those on the tour.

The mud and water that is suctioned will be "decanted" in Schollenberger Park, where the water will leech back to the river and the sediment used in agriculture. 

"We're not sure what we'll encounter down here, it hasn't been dredged in about 17 years," said an operator at the controls.

A massive grinding device at the head of the dredger pulverizes the silt.

The first layer is always trash, including lots of tires.

"It's big deal to move that much mud out of the Petaluma River," said David Rabbit, Sonoma County Supervisor for the area.

"It's something the people of Petaluma and the whole North Bay have wanted for a long time, a free-flowing river where you can boat and enjoy yourself."

Huffman said the needs of commercial ports made it more difficult to win funding from the federal government.

But he credits the patience and persistence of the community for eventual success. 

When Corp officials visited, residents cheered and waved signs on the river banks.

Last summer, they even staged a "hands across the river," forming a human chain to demonstrate that it was more mudflat than waterway.

"They all helped make it very hard for the Corp of Engineers to say no," smiled Huffman.

The hope is that next Labor Day, the deserted boat tie-ups downtown will be busy.

"I think a lot of people are going to be blown away by how great it is to have our river back," said Howland.