Picking the locks
Plans to reopen the Willamette Falls Locks and have them operating once more are moving full steam ahead.
The locks served as a way for commercial and recreational boats to navigate up and down the river for 138 years before closing in 2011 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) determined that excessive corrosion of the locks' gates made them a public safety hazard.
Last week, members of the Willamette Falls Locks Commission, including West Linn Mayor Russ Axelrod, who chairs the commission, testified to four committees of the Oregon Legislature. The commission is advocating for legislation that will form a public corporation to take over ownership of the locks.
Axelrod said the testimony was well-received by the legislative committees last week. He added that they hope to get the bill through in this legislative session, which ends in March.
If the bill passes, Axelrod explained the governor will then appoint a handful of board members to run the corporation, which according to the draft legislation would be called the Willamette Falls Locks Authority.
Before the ownership of the locks can be transferred to a state corporation, however, Congress must first deauthorize them as a federal facility.
Congress is currently starting work on a bill generally referred to as WRDA (water resources development act)," said Michelle Giguere, a project team leader with the commission.
"The Senate committee is starting that bill and Sen. Merkley sits on that committee and has a provision drafted for transfer of the locks, which we believe will be included in the Senate bill."
According to the commission, a study by ECONorthwest found that opening the locks would provide $12 million to 49 million of transportation benefits and $12 million to $50 million in recreation benefits to the state of Oregon, as well as remove 80,000-220,000 truck trips from Portland area roads and provide a reduction of 11,000-32,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.
"Reopening the locks and returning navigational access around Willamette Falls also holds tremendous historical and cultural value to Oregonians, and to the state's Native American tribes. Tribal history in the area dates back at least 14,000 years, once serving as a place to collect food and fiber and to trade with other tribes, as well as a spiritual and ceremonial gathering place," an October press release from the commission stated.
The commission hopes the falls will be open and operating once again in the next five to ten years. The USACE plans to make a number of capital improvements before the locks reopen.
These repairs are estimated to cost around $14 million, Axelrod said. He said the commission hopes to receive some of that funding from state lottery funds.
Capital repairs and improvements aren't the only costs the commission is focusing on at the moment. They expect to need $250,000-400,000 a year for the first four or five years while the Willamette Falls Locks Authority is starting up.
"We'll be reaching out to a lot of different people, entities and stakeholders," Axelrod said.
He mentioned funding could come from different cities along the river, the counties of the greater Portland area, the Port of Portland and Portland General Electric.
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