Dock compromise welcome but put public interest first

Rivers dominate our landscape. We cross bridges to get from one city to the next. We exercise on waterfront trails. We ship our products via barge. We use rivers to irrigate our farms and supply drinking water to our homes.

And we like to spend time on and in the water, whether it's to catch a fish, catch a wake or catch a sunset.

A lucky few among us have the luxury of living near the river's edge, with private docks reaching into the water, making the Columbia River an extended backyard playground.

But ownership of a dock long has been a precarious proposition. The waterfront belongs to the public, and docks are regulated by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps is working on a revised McNary Shoreline Management Plan that could have big implications for private docks.

Dock owners aren't happy with the changes they see coming, predicting that new rules could mean the end to nearly all private docks on the river. Franklin County commissioners heard from their constituents and asked the Corps to reconsider its plans. Commissioners also made a plea to Sen. Maria Cantwell.

The new guidelines would require maximum light penetration around docks, increased water depths and minimized structures.

The Corps says the changes are needed because docks allow hiding places for predators that like to dine on young salmon and steelhead.

Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck says the Corps lacks scientific proof that docks create a problem for young salmon. And he cited a study that shows young salmon swim down the river's center, not along the shore.

Dock owners say they've conducted extensive research and have not found any documented evidence docks harm juvenile salmon.

Perhaps, but the Corps has documents showing the shoreline is critical habitat for fish considered endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Dock owners, of course, want to keep their docks. And they will be able to under the proposed regulations. But once the property is sold, the new owners would be subject to the new requirements, including a minimum water depth of 10 feet. And that would be the end of many docks.

Obviously, that would hurt the resale value of homes with docks. At a minimum, the new owners could expect to pay for an expensive upgrade.

We're sympathetic, but we also recognize dock ownership is a privilege, not a right, for riverfront homeowners.

Franklin County commissioners think existing docks should be grandfathered in regardless of transfers in ownership and only new docks should be subject to the new requirements.

A risk always exists when private facilities are built on public lands. This practice was common at one time but has grown increasingly challenging in recent years. Cabin owners on federal lands have been asked to pay market rates on their leases, for example. The owners of trailers and condos at Crescent Bar will have to abandon their vacation homes and their sweetheart $33 annual leases in 2012 because Grant County PUD decided not to renew their leases. In some areas, dock owners have to remove their docks completely during salmon runs, but can return them to the water in the off-season.

Dock owners should enjoy the privilege they now have now. Striking a balance would be great, but the river belongs to us all.