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Members will look to the 2017 Legislature to create a new 'Willamette Falls Locks Commission'


TIDINGS PHOTO: LESLIE PUGMIRE HOLE - Willamette Falls were an impassable section of the river until the locks were constructed in 1873 to help boats traverse the river for commerce and recreation. In two years, the state of the Willamette Falls Locks may be dramatically different.

Within that timeframe, the U.S. Corps of Engineers (USACE) — which owns and operates the locks — is expected to complete a long-awaited "disposition study" to determine the future of the structure. The disposition study will provide information on the general condition of the locks, potential repairs needed and potential future uses, with an overarching federal perspective on the economic costs and benefits associated with a potential re-opening.

The disposition study is just one part in a series of recommendations that were recently finalized by the Willamette Falls Locks Task Force. Those recommendations were generated over the course of the past year, beginning with the task force's first meeting in January 2016.

The locks, which first opened in 1873 adjacent to the future location of the West Linn Paper Company, were once an oft-used pathway on the Willamette River for freightage and recreation alike. They were closed in 2011, with the USACE citing "extensive corrosion" and a lack of proper funding to keep the locks open for operation.

In 2012, the National Trust for Historic Preservation classified the locks as one of the "most threatened national treasures" in the country. A task force to address the issue was created during the 2015 Oregon Legislative session.

Former Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts was selected to lead the locks task force, and the group also carried a total of 17 representatives from West Linn, Oregon City, the Oregon Senate and House of Representatives, Clackamas County and Metro, among others.

While the disposition study gets underway, task force members will look to the 2017 Legislature to create a new "Willamette Falls Locks Commission."

"The legislative commission would work in parallel with and in conjunction with the disposition study," said Peter Harkema, director of the Oregon Solutions firm that helped facilitate the task force. "So they would be the ones to help ensure that, in addition to the work the Corps is doing, local economic considerations are being analyzed."

As was noted in an overview of the task force's recommendations, "the information sufficient for the Corps to make their decisions on the disposition is not sufficient for state and local entities to make their decisions."

The recommendations called for an economic benefit study on the locks, which would be funded by a $100,000 allocation that was previously made by the 2016 Legislature. Interim repairs may also be on the horizon, using an additional $400,000 in funds from the 2015 Legislature. Those repairs would theoretically allow for a series of "pilot projects" to demonstrate how the locks could be used in the future, should they be re-opened.

"A lot of great work has been done and partnerships have been built," Harkema said. "And there's a pathway forward into the next phase of work."

Harkema added that task force members don't plan on resting before the 2017 Legislature.

"We expect there will be continued work between the start of 2017 and the Legislative session — and hopefully the establishment of the Legislative commission," Harkema said.

As 2016 nears its end, Harkema said he was struck by the passion shared by members of the task force.

"I was impressed by both the depth of investment from the local community in the locks, and the richness of history — both tribal and other senses of history around the falls," Harkema said.

The task force's final recommendations can be viewed in full here.

Patrick Malee can be reached at 503-636-1281 Ext. 106 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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