Corrosion has forced the closure of the locks at Willamette Falls, and Congress doesn’t have the money to fix them. Diana Fredlund, with the Army Corps of Engineers says they’re not used often enough by commercial river traffic.
The federal government sank more than $2 million of stimulus money into attempts to salvage the 138-year-old series of locks that gave commercial and pleasure boats access around the 40-foot falls.
But corps officials say the anchors on three of seven gates are near failure, and there’s no money to fix them.
“The level of risk of something bad happening has reached the point where we cannot in good conscience continue operating those locks for any reason,” said Scott Clemans, a spokesman for the Corps’ Portland division.
The locks have been open on only a limited basis in recent years, but the closure will have an economic impact, for example 10-15 jobs at Wilsonville Concrete Products and Marine Industrial Construction.
Owner Dave Bernert’s family has operated tugboats and businesses moving material through the locks since the 1880s.
The closure, he said, strands two dredges, three tugboats and four barges in the upper portion of the river. It also cuts him off from his moorage site in Wilsonville, leaving him to look for alternatives downstream. The idled equipment means he’ll need fewer workers for his marine business.
About 75 people work full time for the companies. Bernert said he hopes to retrain laid-off workers for his concrete business.
“We’re going to do our best to make sure we don’t have to let anybody go,” he said. “But if we can’t work jobs with 20 percent of the equipment, we don’t need the people.”
The locks 25 miles south of the Willamette’s confluence with the Columbia are more than 3,500 feet long, with seven gates and four chambers that raise or lower vessels. They opened on Jan. 1, 1873, and had several owners. The government bought the infrastructure in 1915.
A report, completed last December, identified the anchors as a source of concern. Clemans said it wasn’t a surprise.
“We’ve known for years that the locks has a laundry list of issues,” said Clemans. “We’ve spent the money that Congress asked us to spend to do the things Congress has asked us to do. But that’s only a fraction of what’s needed to return the locks to full operational ability.”