Save Willamette Falls Locks

By Sandy Carter, the chair of the Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation. Editor's Note: This article was originally written for and published in the Freshwater News, a regional publication for boaters. It appears on BlueOregon by permission and with the courtesy of the Freshwater News.

Willamettefallslocks_1Attention All Boaters! The Willamette Falls Lock Fest wants you to know that we risk losing the Willamette Falls Locks for ever--unless we can show enough interest and support to counter Congressional moves to END ALL FUNDING! Why should you care? The Willamette Falls Locks are the gateway to the Willamette River above the falls. Without them, this prime boating area will be cut off from the lower river, and only accessible to trailerable boats.

The second Lock Fest will again be a free, family-style event with something for virtually everyone, on land or afloat. Besides the spectacular falls, there are the unusual attractions of a profitable paper mill, a historic hydropower generation facility, and the 132-year-old lock system. But boaters won't be there just for a fun day-trip! (Event details below.)

The Struggle for Funding

A growing coalition of cities, river-based businesses, travel and heritage tourism planners and historic preservation groups have been working behind-the-scenes on behalf of the locks for over a year, since the announcement by the Corps of Engineers that the line item for the locks had been zeroed out of the President's 2005 budget.

This regional stakeholders group has been networking and researching possibilities for stabilizing long-term funding for the locks. Assured funding will be the starter's gun for many ambitious local and regional tourism plans, up and downriver. The stakeholders group, convened by Congresswoman Darlene Hooley's office and facilitated by the Clackamas County Tourism Development Council, is collecting a 'critical mass' of data, written testimonials, and positive public opinion aimed at persuading Congress to fully fund and maintain the historic locks in 2006 and into the future.

The centerpiece of that effort is now in place, in the form of an economic impact study completed last month that provides hard evidence of the economic importance of the locks. The study, funded by Clackamas County and Travel Oregon, the state tourism office, shows a $3 to $7 regional return-on-investment for every dollar spent to keep the locks running. Economic significance aside, without the river gateway provided by the locks, no one gets to boat past the 40' Willamette Falls anymore and river-based tourism dollars are a no-show.

For 2006, the dollars in the President's proposed budget for the locks amounted to only $72,000-compared to its normal annual operating cost of approximately $450,000. But locks supporters and Lock Fest organizers were elated just to see the line item back in the budget, attributing it to the persistent public awareness campaign.

In a week-long flurry of emails and flying faxes, the City of West Linn agreed to be the applicant on a supplemental allocation request. West Linn's request is for $550,000. Of that, $450,000 would pay for full operations and routine maintenance. The remaining $100,000 has been requested for a one-time, expert assessment of the locks' looming major maintenance needs, with recommendation for a prioritized 'critical path' for future capital repairs. West Linn and lock users and regional backers have pressed for such a prevention-oriented engineering assessment so that historic preservation resources outside of the Corps budget can be sought and potential failure of the old gates and their mechanisms can be averted.

The last week in February saw a crash letter-writing initiative focused on the offices of Senators Smith and Wyden. The goal: Senatorial support to match the diehard efforts of Congresswoman Darlene Hooley, who had single-handedly earmarked and obtained $210,000 for the locks to re-open and operate in 2005.

Both Senator Smith and Senator Wyden have publicly expressed their support for funding. But that support must be considered in a fierce budgeting environment. Stakeholders plan another wave of letters at the end of summer, as budgets from each legislative branch struggle for survival in conference committee negotiations. In the last two budget years, House requests for the locks were halved when they emerged from conference, says Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation Chair, Sandy Carter. "We see strong support from our Senators as a piece that has been missing until now," said Carter. "With their influence united behind locks funding, a bright future for river tourism and commerce becomes a probability, not just a possibility."

Lock Fest 2005

Most yacht clubs and other flotilla participants will have chosen to be join this loose caravan of boats as a conscious, public demonstration of their support for the locks. Several Portland-area yachting groups will be participating in the flotilla, including the Multnomah Channel Yacht Club, Waverly Yacht Club, the Antique and Classic Boats Society, and a group of "big boats" promising to spend Friday night at the new Oregon City dock to be first in line in the morning when the locks open at 8am.

A Lock Fest pilot boat will be standing off the lower entrance to the locks with information and guidance for boaters as they arrive and queue near the small Corps dock, grouping up for their lockage. The Willamette Jet Boat will be based at that dock from 10am to 4pm, taking festival visitors for free mini-tours out to the falls and back every half-hour.

Boats entering the dark wet walls of the four locks, each 210 feet by 38 feet, with a six-foot draft, will glide between massive timbers and ease up against mossy walls to grab fat, wet ropes and hang on while the chambers fill or empty with 850,000 gallons of water. Boats should have three adults aboard--two for the ropes and one to hold position with motor and rudder.The total rise is about 40 feet. (Lifejacket use is recommended!)

Boaters who motor upstream to Willamette Park's Bernert Landing dock, near the mouth of the Tualatin, will find a barbeque grill, with sandwiches and box lunches from Willamette General Store and coffee from the Perfect Cup, as well as a school bus shuttle to and from the activities at the Locks Park.The locks will be open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Antique boat fans and World War II buffs will be drawn by the appearance of PT 658, a fully restored wooden PT Boat with three Packard V-12 engines. Owned and lovingly restored by "Save the PT Boat, Inc.", PT658 will motor upriver from Swan Island, aiming to be in chamber three at noon. After wowing onlookers all along its route, the 78-foot craft, carrying WWII veterans and sponsored by the Democratic Party of Clackamas County for this visit, will back down out of the locks, swing around, and return to its berth at Swan Island.

The Willamette Meteorite 1905

With history as its theme, this year's flotilla will feature a re-enactment of the day in 1905 that the Willamette Meteorite was barged downriver through the locks on its way to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The debate over its ownership and custodial rights rages on. A full-size replica of the 15-ton meteorite, the largest ever found in the United States, is being constructed by 8th graders at Three Rivers Charter School. On May 14th, it will be trucked to Willamette Park's Bernert's Landing launch ramp, where tugboat Captain Bill Bernert will see it loaded on a 24x55' barge for the trip through the locks. West Linn Chamber members and friends in period costume will accompany the replica through the ocks, simultaneously providing great entertainment and spotlighting the "Pearl of the Ice Age Floods."

Behind the Scenes

Lock Fest, as a project, has more partners and passion than experience. But passion goes far. This year, building on last year's success, the festival won a marketing grant from the Tourism Development Council and will be hitting the airwaves with radio ads in early May, hoping to attract 3-5,000 visitors over the course of a long day of activities and living history.

Its volunteer organizers (none of whom are retired) are over-worked and under-slept, and the limited parking may be a nightmare if it's a sunny day and the hoped-for number of people show up. But that's the kind of nightmare wished for by the non-profit Lock Fest planning group: such a traffic jam that their history festival gets on the evening news on all channels, because so many people love the locks.

A Window of Opportunity

Lock Fest was conceived as an educational vehicle for locks supporters to rally around. And to its designers, this strategy seems to be working. It won a Crystal Award from the Willamette Valley Development Officers in October for being Outstanding Event of 2004. Flotilla participants and landlubbers alike will be key actors in a growing regional effort to assure that the locks remain in operation and viable as a transportation and recreational resource of value to the entire Willamette Valley.

Thus far, the growing coalition of locks backers seems to be making progress. Although on a shoestring, the locks will be operating this year, Thursday through Monday, 9 a.m to 5 p.m., May 5th to September 18th. Representative Hooley's office reports that the Congresswoman is "working very hard to secure a $550,000 congressional 'add-on' for continued locks operation and maintenance in FY 2006."

Carrying West Linn's request, Representative Hooley has pushed a congressional add-on for $550,000. And this week, Senator Wyden's office released this comment: "Willamette Falls Locks is clearly an important historical, economic and recreational asset, and one that has tremendous community support. I will continue to work with Senator Smith to support Congresswoman Hooley's efforts to get adequate funding to keep the locks open."


  • Yoram (unverified)

    Great. A half-million dollars a year so non-trailerable boats can go up the Willamette. I'd much rather spend that half-million on cleaning up the Willamette.

    The author states: The centerpiece of that effort is now in place, in the form of an economic impact study completed last month that provides hard evidence of the economic importance of the locks. The study, funded by Clackamas County and Travel Oregon, the state tourism office, shows a $3 to $7 regional return-on-investment for every dollar spent to keep the locks running.

    Most likely, the ROI on doing something else with the money (economic development or otherwise) could pay back a lot more than 3 or 7 to 1.

    Are the locks cool? Yes. Is a half-million a year cooler? Yes.

  • (Show?)

    Yoram, keep in mind that it's not just about non-trailerable boats going UP the river from Portland. It's also about non-trailerable boats (truly non-trailerable commercial craft, not "i don't own a trailer" pleasure craft) going DOWN the river to Portland.

    In particular, there are plenty of upriver boats that could be stranded behind the Falls without any way to get them to a repair facility. Not only that, but it makes the purchase price for those kinds of vessels very high - as they'd need to be trucked and craned into the water, not just motored in upriver.

  • pdx (unverified)

    The more people on the river, the more people will care about the river. Getting UO students to kayak from Eugene to Portland was a poignant, in-your-face way of teaching them about the river, and hopefully getting them to care. Sadly, without the locks, no more kayak.

    Seattle can pay for their Ballard Locks....whats wrong with us?

  • (Show?)

    We have no money to pay for Willamette Falls Locks because Darlene Hooley insists on repealing the estate tax. The Oregonian estimate the cost of the Locks at about $4,000 per commercial boat trip, which sounds like unjustifiable pork to me.

  • (Show?)

    We have no money to pay for Willamette Falls Locks because Darlene Hooley insists on repealing the estate tax. The Oregonian estimate the cost of the Locks at about $4,000 per commercial boat trip, which sounds like unjustifiable pork to me.

  • sandy carter (unverified)

    Dear Steve, the Oregonian's unfortunate shot-below-the-waterline comments seemed to me to reflect the editorial board's lack of understanding about the way the $4K-plus figure was derived, and about the death spiral in public usee that has resulted from drastic funding cuts and commensurate decreases in operating hours.

    That statistic, taken out of context, did look damning. Deeper examination of the issues surrounding Locks funding yields a more complex picture--one of the Corps starving out the Locks--killing it slowly by maintaining an outdated definition of "commercial", upon which it then based service cuts--cuts that remove the Locks from many boaters' radar screens because of the difficulty of tracking when they are open or closed. You know about lies, damn lies, and statistics, I assume. I totally concur with the writer who observed that in order to 'save' a river, you need to get people recreating on it and generally paying attention to what goes on in, on, and beside it. That's the primary reason we held the flotilla and Lock Fest last Saturday (2,400 people who showed up were fascinated with the raw power of the river in the Locks), and why we support the local and regional river-based tourism planning that hinges on the old Locks. Plus we think that we have a responsibility to be good custodians for a historic site of National Landmark importance, which just happens to be a transportation workhorse and the 'gate' on our American Heritage River trail. Keep your eyes on this issue, as the only money in the President's budget for 2006 is $72,000 requested by the Corps for permanent decommissioning. Hooley's efforts to earmark adequate funding for next year failed (and yes, I believe she should have voted differently on the estate tax, but it's a bit too flip to write off this issue on that basis), so the ball is in the court of our honorable Senators. --SC-- Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation--an all-volunteer non-profit that believes that a full understanding of history and making it accessible to future generations are essential elements in a civilized culture (as are a quality public education, clear air and water, and higher levels of civil discourse and community than we are witnessing today. But one can only take on so much at a time.). In some of the comments I believe I hear the voices of people who have not yet come to appreciate history. As someone who has moles older than many of the current movers and shakers in Portland, I can only say that someday, someday, they will. Let's just hope it's not all bulldozed and paved by then. Peace.

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