Shortly after 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, the doors on Willamette Falls locks let out a slight groan and began to swivel open. Dozens stood by while the lock chambers behind the West Linn Paper Company filled with millions of gallons of river water, allowing the Salem-based, old-fashioned sternwheeler Willamette Queen to pass through on its journey northward to Portland.
It's a scene that could be put on hold indefinitely pending the outcome of an extensive test on the 135-year-old locks.
The Willamette Queen brought a cruise full of river enthusiasts up the Willamette last weekend so it could undergo a mandatory Coast Guard inspection that requires a dry dock along the Columbia Slough. The necessary equipment isn't available in the Willamette Valley south of the falls.
Willamette Queen Captain Richard Chesbrough is concerned he won't be able to get back for his inspection in 2013.
When the Army Corps of Engineers closed the locks after last summer's recreation season, they didn't have plans to reopen them in the immediate future. The federal government mandates that older locks undergo a hydraulic steel structure (HSS) inspection, and the corps agreed to open the locks before the 2008 inspection only because Chesbrough reached an agreement with the corps a year ago.
Diana Fredlund, a spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers in Portland, said the exhaustive $500,000 test involves draining the water out of the locks and taking the structure apart. If the locks pass the 2008 inspection, they are free to operate if they can secure funding. If it fails; however, the situation becomes more complicated. Fredlund said the Corps doesn't have any funding for extensive repairs; but letting the locks sit dormant could lead to further problems.
'If you close it and you don't use it that's when things really start to fall apart,' she said. 'Part of the maintenance is just to keep operating.'
Local river enthusiasts are hoping the corps doesn't have to worry about fixing the locks. Sandy Carter is executive director of the Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation, a group that helped to cobble together funds for the locks to stay open during last summer's recreation season.
'We are just assuming since the locks have fairly light use and have been fairly regularly maintained; we're thinking they're not going to find any ticking time bombs in there,' Carter said.
While the locks played a vital role in the state's history, they are no longer as practical in an economic sense. Fredlund said there were 303 total lockages in 2007, many of which were for recreational boats. In contrast, the Bonneville Dam along the Columbia River sees that sort of traffic in one month, including regular visits from commercial barges hauling grain. The economic realities have led the federal government to put smaller and older locks like those along Willamette Falls low on the priority list for repairs. In addition, the older structure can pose some unique problems.
'A lot of the equipment that's on the locks, sometimes its hard to even find the parts because no one is making it anymore, so the cost of maintaining it do start to rise,' Fredlund said.
The corps still doesn't have a timeline for the HSS test. It hopes to complete it during the spring. If the locks pass, the corps could potentially open them for the summer recreation season, though funding could be a questions mark. Fredlund said the corps is committed to working with nonprofit groups to find a way to open the locks if they pass inspection.
As for the Willamette Queen, Chesbrough said the closure of the locks could eventually ground his ship, and others like it along the upper Willamette River. As it is, he only has a short window when the river runs high enough for his ship to make it all the way to Portland.
'It would put me out of business,' Chesbrough said of a locks closure. 'It essentially makes a million dollar vessel worthless.'