In a rare show of Tri-City unity, almost every public agency with an interest in the Columbia River is ready to lobby Congress to return 34 miles of shoreline to local control.
The Tri-City Chamber of Commerce and the Port of Pasco are the latest to jump on the Return-the-Columbia bandwagon, championed by former U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R.-Wash. The chamber signed off Tuesday. The port commission did so at its regular business meeting Thursday.
They join the Benton and Franklin county commissions; the Kennewick, Pasco and Richland city councils; the Tri-City Development Council board; the Tri-City Association of Realtors board and the Pasco Chamber of Commerce.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., provided the spark last year when she told former Kennewick Mayor Brad Fisher that she’d support a local control effort if the community got behind it.
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Fisher teamed with Hastings and Gary Petersen, vice president of federal programs for TRIDEC, to gather endorsements. They intend to introduce legislation in Congress this year by way of Hastings’ successor, U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash.
“I think this can get done,” Hastings told Pasco’s port commissioners during a lengthy briefing this week.
I think this can get done.
Doc Hastings, retired U.S. representative, R.-Wash.
With the Pasco port on board, the local control team has locked in all but two government agencies — the ports of Benton and Kennewick.
The Port of Benton will consider it when it meets in May, said Scott Keller, executive director.
The Port of Kennewick has abstained from taking a position, saying it needs more information and time to consult with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, its formal partner on river-related matters, said Tana Bader Inglima, deputy CEO.
Local control could lead to lower levies, more recreation and even some commercial development. Though local agencies are eager to reassert control, Hastings predicted that the plan will draw fire from environmental groups.
Hastings said local control is a matter of practicality and timing. He asserts that the Army Corps of Engineers’ flood control mission is moot. The mood in Congress also is friendlier to local control, especially in cases where transferring property to local agencies would relieve it of a financial obligation.
The Corps secured control of the local Columbia River shoreline after the 1948 floods. It acquired additional land related to construction of McNary Dam between 1947 and 1954. At the time, there were just two dams upriver from Benton and Franklin counties — Grand Coulee and Rock Island in Chelan County.
Five additional dams constructed have eliminated the risk of another catastrophic flood. Decisions regarding levies and land use should be made locally, not by federal bureaucrats, advocates say.
“This is the most underutilitized shoreline in the U.S.,” said TRIDEC’s Petersen.
This is the most underutilized shoreline in the U.S.
Gary Petersen, Tri-City Development Council
Petersen said the goal is to transfer control, not pack the waterfront with condominiums. But that said, he acknowledged that cities may consider commercial enterprises on the river to offset the maintenance cost.
The cities of Kennewick, Richland and Pasco collectively spend about $1.4 million annually to maintain shoreline parks with little to no voice in potential enhancements. The city of Kennewick reluctantly took responsibility for Columbia Park in 1988 when the Corps threatened to padlock the park. The city feared losing Water Follies.
The Corps manages the Benton and Franklin stretch of Columbia River shoreline under the McNary Shoreline Management Plan, last updated in 2012. There is a process to transfer goverment-owned lands that involves exhaustive reviews. Hastings, who retired from Congress in 2014, is using his contacts to press for a simple transfer.
Local control supporters say communities in Benton and Franklin counties have suffered under the Corps’ oversight. Levies constructed many feet taller than needed block views and access. Kennewick officials complain that it can take years to secure approval for simple maintenance, such as replacing sprinkler heads.
The local control movement targets Corps-controlled lands in Benton and Franklin counties. Walla Walla has expressed an interest, but it is not part of the proposal.