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Corps may give up Willamette Locks

by: VERN UYETAKE - The Willamette locks have been primarily used for recreational purposes since the 1970s when log rafts became a rarity.

Momentum builds to take over canal with local funding


A large, multijurisdictional meeting last week launched new partnerships to usurp the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' control over the shuttered Willamette Falls Locks between Oregon City and West Linn.

Local officials are fed up with what they see as the Corps' neglect of the historic, manmade waterway. Citing public safety concerns in November, the Corps moved the 138-year-old locks into a "non-operational" status, thereby cutting the navigational potential of the Willamette River in half.

Clackamas County Chairwoman Charlotte Lehan argued that user fees from people demanding passage through the falls should have covered basic maintenance of the locks. Comparing it to the county-run Canby Ferry, which just doubled its rates to $4 a trip, Lehan criticized the Corps for lacking foresight to set up a viable "funding stream" that would keep the locks running.

"It never seems to be a high priority for the Corps and, for whatever reason, it has been like we're dragging the Corps along for some time," Lehan said.

Corps Project Manager Patrick Duyck offered several excuses in response to the community outcry. Finding seven gates and anchors that were more than 50 years old and experiencing excessive corrosion, the Corps determined that the distressed condition of three anchors in particular increases potential for failure.

With the locks "non-operational," as Duyck explained federal law, private partners can no longer contribute to what he estimates will be a $3- to $5-million repair job. He acknowledged, however, that the Corps has "no idea" of the actual condition of buried anchors.

Then the crowd turned what had been a simmering frustration into outright revolt. During the June 20 meeting at the Ainsworth House in Oregon City, Lehan was among the more than 50 people raising their hands when a facilitator asked whether the Corps should give up the locks.

No one had raised a hand when asked first whether the Corps should retain control. Among those raising their hands for "Plan B" were Oregon City officials, representatives from the Metro regional government, state of Oregon employees and about a dozen people whose businesses rely on running jet boats, sternwheelers or other crafts along the river.

Investigating options

Although there was local consensus for dumping the Corps, leaders still have to agree on a new owner or operator.

Several people suggested that Metro take over, as it already owns and operates a diverse portfolio that includes the Oregon Zoo, the Portland Convention Center and waste-transfer stations. But Metro Councilor Carl Hosticka worried that training and hiring an entirely new, specialized staff for the locks would be too big of a hurdle.

Metro, in partnership with the state, county and the city of Oregon City, is already investigating what can be done with the 22-acre site next door that housed the now-bankrupt Blue Heron Paper Co. Knowing the site's environmental conditions - and possible contaminants it's released - may help the coalition decide whether to try to launch a bankruptcy-court bid, opening it for public access. More than a year after the plant shuttered, no one has yet purchased the land from a bankruptcy trustee.

Oregon City Community Development Director Tony Konkol emphasized that the governmental agencies have no immediate plans on the site. Rather they are trying to gather information that would be useful whether a public or private agency purchases the land.

While the bankruptcy trustee is still looking to sell the Blue Heron land as an asset, it's unclear whether the Corps would consider the locks a liability. Duyck said that the Corps would want to transfer ownership with a "dowry" to ensure that funds were available for its maintenance, but that number still needs to be determined.

"While these investigations are going on, we want to make it clear that the property is still on the market," Konkol said.

Attendees suggested that the Corps could be kept as a locks contractor to avoid staffing challenges, but no one knew what it would take to formalize such a cross-jurisdictional partnership. Duyck said that the Corps hasn't had time to research alternative funding scenarios.

Litigation possible

As a rare, intact piece of America's canal-building era, the locks are unique in Oregon as the first significant navigational construction on the Willamette River and in the greater Columbia River drainage basin.

In failing to preserve the locks' function, the Corps is vulnerable to litigation under the Historic Preservation Act's section 106, noted Jason Allen, an expert on the law with the state of Oregon.

Allen said that the state couldn't file suit; it would have to be a private citizen to argue that the Corps is neglecting its duty to protect historic infrastructure.

The One Willamette River Coalition, whose members have been working for six years to keep the 1873 locks operating, picked up some powerful new friends May 22 with a joint public announcement by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Historic Preservation League of Oregon.

The locks joined eight other unique Oregon places in gaining the dubious "Most Endangered Places" distinction, a label that attracts preservation-league resources.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation simultaneously named the locks one of its new "National Treasures."

Sandy Carter, facilitator for the coalition, said that, although the "endangered" designation carries some baggage, the group is thrilled with the new partnerships. With

strong support from the National Trust and HPLO, it hopes to repair and restore the locks to open for freight ships and tourists again.

"We've always avoided the ‘Most Endangered' list before, because it seems so negative, but it also seems like a time of desperation," Carter said.

In the meantime, the Corps promises continued evaluation of options for repairing and restoring the locks to an operational status under current funding constraints.

Funding for navigation locks nationwide is based on tonnage of cargo, with higher-volume locks receiving funding priority. The locks have been primarily used for recreational purposes, meaning a low funding priority, since the 1970s when log rafts became a rarity.