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No fix for river rockpile until next year

Sheriff's office might launch boats from trailers as city fails to secure dredging permit this year
by: Matthew Graham, The sheriff’s marine patrol must maneuver the tight channel from the right and around the rock pileup near the McLoughlin bridge.

Sergeant Steve Thoroughman pulled out of the Sheriff's Office boat garage at a steady speed, the depth readings growing as he crossed the cove: 12 feet, 13.6 feet, 14.4 feet.

Approaching the mouth of the lagoon that leads into the Clackamas River a few hundred yards short of where it meets the Willamette in Oregon City, Thoroughman points to a huge pile of rocks and gravel that has formed, all but blocking the channel between the two. Rather than slow down to minimize the damage in case they hit the rocks, Thoroughman, hits the gas and the boat shoots up into the air, only a small portion of the underside still in the water.

He hugs the shore through the narrow strait, feet away from the shoreline rocks, whipping around the tail curve of the pileup and jetting back up the Clackamas.

This display in April, when water levels are still high, is impressive. But come July or August, when water levels drop by six or eight feet, he and his deputies will have to decide whether to risk the maneuver or pull their boats and launch from somewhere else, a decision that could add to response times and cost someone his or her life.

'In order to not be sucking rocks up into the pump, you need a foot and a half [of water depth] at least, and we're not going to have that,' Thoroughman said. 'It's going to add 10-15 minutes on there because I've got to run up and grab a truck and trailer, I've got to get to a ramp, even if it's Clackamette Park, I've got to back down the ramp … You get a kid drowning out at High Rocks, that's the difference between life and death.'

The location is 'ideal' for the sheriff's marine unit, Thoroughman said, because it has easy access to the Willamette and the Clackamas and they can keep their boats docked there. But if they can't get out, that site is done for. And without another static location, they'll have to launch when a call comes in.

Their options are so limited because Oregon City's permit to dredge the site expired last year, and rather than work to renew it through the winter, they sought other means of dealing with the problem.

'Throughout the winter we initiated a process to see if there was more of a long-term fix, because someone had suggested there was a way to grade the floor of the Clackamas so it would be self-cleansing,' said Nancy Kraushaar, Oregon City's public works director and engineer. 'Then we found out the model we needed [to study that option] was no longer available.'

The city had been in contact with the county and the sheriff's office, and knew the urgency of the matter, so, when they couldn't get the study for the long-term solution, they decided to try for the short-term dredging again.

Except by then the rules had changed.

'They have new rules now, new biological assessments,' Kraushaar said, 'All of a sudden we have more work than we anticipated.'

The city and county have been working together since then to see that the issue gets fixed as soon as possible. But the one avenue that could fix it this year, the Army Corps of Engineers declaring it an emergency because of the sheriff's increased response times, isn't going to happen.

'Our engineer at the county talked to the corps and the corps said it wouldn't really be an emergency,' Kraushaar said, although she said she didn't understand their reasoning.

That means the soonest the problem will be fixed is summer 2009, leaving the sheriff, and others without recourse.

Tourism, development threatened

Lowell Gillespie's been running boats up and down the Willamette for years. He started on his own company, eventually signing on to captain boats for the Portland Spirit Company.

'I knew a lot of different places to go and things to do that the Portland Spirit wasn't aware of right away' said Gillespie, 'Return customers said, 'we've been down there, where else can we go.''

So Gillespie showed them new routes down the Willamette to Champoeg and up to Sauvies Island.

On the trips down to Champoeg, he'd show people the Falls, the Locks, Oregon City's municipal elevator.

'We used the Willamette Star to come up here and we maybe averaged 80 to 85 people per trip, and how many of those people come back it's hard to say,' he said.

He said they ran two trips per week for four months a year.

'You're looking at a quite a few people who were introduced to Oregon City,' interjected Jerry Herman, of the River Resources Museum.

But this year he can't bring those people down and is taking them to Vancouver instead, which isn't good for his business and hurts Oregon City's tourism industry.

'This [route] will be closed off this year,' Gillespie said.

The city also has to consider the investment they're seeking for the site, the Cove development.

If the rock buildup continues and the cove becomes a lake, which Herman said is likely if nothing is done, the water will develop a new ecology.

'There are things growing in here now that were not growing in there before because of the diminished water exchange, and they're things we don't want near us,' Herman said. 'Another year and it won't be usable for the public.'

Randy Tyler, of Pacific Property Search, which is planning the Cove development, was more optimistic about it, but admitted that such a change could affect the project.

'It will probably mean that it wouldn't be quite as valuable as it would otherwise be, but we're in the business of solving problems,' he said, saying they'll find a way to maintain water quality and keep that an attractive site.

'I think the vision is that it would be a very attractive opportunity for people to live and play,' he said. 'Even if it was a lake, it would be nice lakefront property … If you look at the size of this lake front property, its about the same size as Oswego Lake.'

He said no matter what happens there, property that close to two rivers will be valuable.

'The thing about waterfront property is just the scarcity principle, there just isn't much of it,' he said. 'If you look at the places up and down the Willamette where it would be possible to do a mixed-use waterfront development … there are just very few opportunities.'