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Panel urges caution before moving ahead on plans for whitewater park

METRO staff

SUBMITTED PHOTO - The whitewater park proposal included the area upriver from the former Blue Heron Paper Mill. An advisory committee supporting the Willamette Falls Legacy Project has recommended that the project’s partners wait and learn more before considering whether to move forward with a proposed whitewater park at the falls.

Project leaders are committed to providing access to the falls, with superstar Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta leading the team designing the riverwalk. The riverwalk would connect downtown Oregon City, across the former Blue Heron Paper Co. mill, to the edge of the falls.

The coalition leading the project — the state, Metro, Clackamas County, Oregon City and the site’s private owners — have long sought to make up for the private-sector jobs lost when the paper mill closed in 2011. Partners have agreed on four core values for any decision that moves the project forward. They are: historic and cultural interpretation, public access, healthy habitat, and economic redevelopment.

A proposed whitewater park is a recent addition to the conversation.

It’s the brainchild of Sam Drevo, who owns a paddling school and is a kayak tour guide. He leads a coalition that is pursuing a whitewater park through the Blue Heron site. Drevo’s work has been funded in part by a grant from Clackamas County’s tourism promotion arm.

In an email, project advocate Kate Govaars said without the whitewater park, the second-highest-volume waterfall in North America would only be a minor tourism attraction in Oregon City.

“A whitewater park and water trail gives Oregonians unprecedented public access to the falls, allowing users to touch, feel and fully experience the waters of the Willamette, while also connecting the upper and lower river to recreational users for the first time in over a century,” she said. “The first written accounts of Native Americans at the falls noted use of canoes for transportation across the Willamette and Clackamas rivers. The park has the potential to serve as focal point for living heritage interpretation, connecting Oregon City to its rich history. Similar facilities have shown that this type of amenity is a great regional attraction, and the economic impact study by EcoNW indicates that the expected 380,000 annual visitors to the park would have major economic multipliers for the region, creating annual expenditures of $20 million to $30 million with a total economic value of over $1 billion over 50 years.”

Project leaders said last week that Drevo’s group can continue to study feasibility of the whitewater park, but that study would not include financing from the Willamette Falls Legacy Project.

The study, project partners said, should address water rights for the whitewater park, impacts on fish migration, compliance with Oregon City zoning, easements, a finance plan and agreements with Portland General Electric, which owns a hydro plant at the falls, as well as federal power regulators. The whitewater park, partners said, also must include support from Oregon tribes, with “a demonstration that the project protects or enhances their vision for the falls.”

The plan already has raised some concerns from advocates for more jobs at the site and from environmental advocates.

“I have read several accounts in local newspapers and in television coverage regarding what would appear to be a large, intrusive kayaking facility that may not be consistent with the four core values contained in information regarding the Willamette Falls Legacy project,” said Mike Houck, executive director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute, in a letter to the project partners. “While I am not passing judgment on the proposal at this point, I do want to raise serious concerns regarding the planning process and how the proposal for a kayaking facility fits into that public process.”

A report from the project partners said the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife also has concerns about the whitewater park.

“Staff learned that new flows of water introduced on the Oregon City side would be problematic for fish migration,” the memo says. “Salmon are currently directed toward fish ladders on the West Linn side of the river, and ODFW has no plans or interest in adding fish ladders for salmon on the Oregon City side. Significant flows of water, such as a whitewater channel outfall, attract fish and would detract from fish passage toward the existing fish ladders.”

The concept has financial implications as well.

Metro committed $5 million to help pay for the riverwalk project as part of its voter-approved 2006 natural areas bond program. The Oregon Legislature has added $12.5 million to the project. Neither grant can be used for planning a large recreational facility, like a whitewater park.

“The project is still in the early stages, and we want to be open to all kinds of creative ideas and partners,” said Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette. “But any partner needs to meet strict feasibility criteria to safeguard public funds and the project’s four core values that have kept us all focused.”

Metro News articles are written by the communications staff at Metro, the Portland area’s regional government.