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Council backs study of Willamette Falls Locks


by: SPOKESMAN FILE PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Willamette Falls Locks, shown here during a temporary opening a year ago to allow the Canby Ferry to travel downstream, is the subject of an economic analysis study backed by the city of Wilsonville and Wilsonville Concrete. There are certainly significant obstacles in the way. But the possibility of transferring the venerable Willamette Falls Locks into private hands in hopes of refurbishing the 140-year-old facility remains the driving force behind a new economic analysis study being conducted by metro area nonprofit groups the Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and One Willamette River.

To gain support for their work, which has been ongoing since well before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed the locks to all marine traffic in 2011, those groups have lobbied local governments for financial and political support. And on Jan. 6, the Wilsonville City Council responded by approving a $2,500 grant that will help fund the study.

“It’s kind of a broad-based sort of push,” Wilsonville Mayor Tim Knapp said. “The question they are dealing with is whether they could find an entity to take responsibility for the locks and enable the locks to operate in a more practical time and cost frame than what the Army Corps has offered. I think it’s an interesting question for Wilsonville and we’ve had discussions at times for the potential for operations on the river, both recreational and commercial, and how that might affect the city.”

According to a city staff report, “Wilsonville could benefit from an operational locks, especially as it relates to the city council’s goal for a vital multi-modal transportation network.” The study would result in “the generation of clear data and analysis showing the economic benefit ... to marine-based industries in the Newberg Pool, as well as tourists and recreational river users on the Willamette River Water Trail.”

Other backers for the economic analysis include the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which kicked in $10,000, Portland General Electric, which contributed $8,000, Wilsonville Concrete ($3,000), J&A Fuel Company ($3,000), Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation ($2,000), Willamette Falls Heritage Area Coalition ($5,000) and the city of Oregon City ($500).

Wilsonville City Manager Bryan Cosgrove said the city’s backing for the study is largely in support of commercial interests.

“It’s directly connected to Wilsonville with Wilsonville Concrete, and maybe there’s a potential for a port in the future,” he told the council. “And second, there could be tourism opportunities in the future.”

Portland consulting firm EcoNorthwest has been hired to conduct the study. The first step will be to conduct a demand analysis that includes a market analysis and outreach interviews. The second phase will develop an economic model to estimate the economic effects of reopening the locks. Using the data and model developed in previous steps, the third and final phase will include a “with” versus a “without” approach to compare the economic impacts of a reopening the locks to continuing with the locks closed. The final report will describe the effects of reopening the locks on economic benefits and the associated costs.

The locks were first opened in 1873. In 2007, federal funding was drastically cut because of a drop in the tonnage of shipping using the locks. By 2011, the Corps of Engineers decided that because further federal funding was unlikely to materialize, it could not expect to repair corrosion that was found in the gudgeon arms used to open and close the locks.

It has been closed since then, with the exception of a pair of temporary openings that allowed the Canby Ferry to travel downstream for repairs and Wilsonville Concrete to move vessels upstream.

In Wilsonville, the fate of the locks one way or another could impact dozens of jobs. Wilsonville Concrete and Marine, which conducts dredging and other heavy work on both sides of Willamette Falls, has told the city between 15 and 30 full-time jobs will be in jeopardy if the company cannot maintain access to the locks from its Wilsonville base of operations.

“I think this is an important study to do because the operation of the locks has been in limbo for some time,” said Councilor Julie Fitzgerald. “And I think it’s a unique part of the Northwest here, and it will allow us to look for a minimal investment and it will help find out what it will take to get it operational again.”