The West Linn City Hall council chambers were filled to the brim Wednesday, July 18, as the 2018 Willamette Falls Locks Commission met for the sole purpose of listening to public testimony about the future of the locks.
In-person testimony from nine members of the public — several others submitted written testimony — was overwhelmingly in favor of re-opening the locks under new ownership. Currently owned by the U.S. Corps of Engineers (USACE), the 145-year-old locks have been closed since 2011. They first opened in 1873, adjacent to the future location of the West Linn Paper Company mill, and for decades served as an oft-used pathway for freightage and recreation on the Willamette River.
The 2011 closure was due to what USACE deemed "extensive corrosion" and a lack of funding to keep the locks open for operation. That decision was met with pushback from representatives and advocates around the region, and in 2016 former Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts led a task force to study the issue.
That task force recommended the creation of the locks commission, which was formed by Gov. Kate Brown earlier this year. With the USACE stating in 2017 that the locks should be decommissioned and potentially transferred to a new owner for commercial and recreational use, the locks commission's task this year is to explore a potential ownership transfer to a state or local entity.
The commission is chaired by West Linn Mayor Russ Axelrod. Other members include House Rep. Julie Parrish, Oregon City Mayor Dan Holladay, West Linn resident and locks advocate Sandy Carter and Metro Councilor Betty Dominguez.
Public testimony July 18 kicked off with Roberts, the former governor and task force leader.
"It is clear from past actions of the Oregon Legislature that the question of whether the locks should be repaired and reopened to public service has been decided, and the answer is yes," Roberts said. "As such, your charge is to figure out how to make that happen. ... The Corps of Engineers have reached their conclusion on the terms under which they will transfer the facility to an alternate entity, but has also made it clear that if we fail to identify that entity, they will be forced to commence with a permanent decommissioning."
Representing the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Cheryle Kennedy said the locks are a key part of Willamette Falls — one of the tribe's most sacred and vital sites.
"The falls itself is one of the largest gatherings of commerce for Native Americans in the U.S.," Kennedy said. "Our role here is because we are the resident tribe, and we continue to fish here. ... We want to make sure it is maintained as well as it can be.
"We really believe (that) tourism, the beauty of the river itself, the beauty of the falls and the beauty of the people need to be part of this contemplation and planning process."
Dan Yates, the president of Portland Spirit River Cruises, said reopening the locks could open up significant recreational boating opportunities.
"I'm very supportive of the locks opening," he said. "I will tell you that one of the most desirable opportunities is running river cruises into the Willamette Valley."
He envisioned a future route from Portland to Salem, and added that boat moorage fees could be an additional source of revenue for municipalities.
Speaking on behalf of the Mt. Hood Territory Tourism Development Council, former West Linn City Councilor Jody Carson argued that the locks were a key component of the large-scale redevelopment being planned on both sides of the river near the falls.
"There's a critical amount of history there, but also ... hopes for future tourism," Carson said. "These locks are central to the Willamette Falls Heritage Area ... and also development on both sides of the river.
"We need to find a way to leverage our opportunities to get the locks opened and see the wonderful benefit to our community."
The locks commission will meet again Sept. 5 at West Linn City Hall. Learn more at http://orsolutions.org/osproject/WFLC.
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