Four years after a trio of Tri-City political heavyweights first proposed asking Congress to return 34 miles of Columbia River shoreline to local control, the controversial plan is headed to its most public airing yet.
Former U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, former Kennewick Mayor Brad Fisher and former TRIDEC executive Gary Petersen have slowly been gathering support for the idea of Tri-City control from every local city, county and port.
Local control could lead to lower levies, more recreation and even some commercial development.
In April, the chairmen of the Benton and Franklin County commissions and the mayors of Kennewick, Pasco, Richland and West Richland sent a joint letter to U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, and the state’s two Democratic senators.
The shoreline is under Army Corps control but leased in long stretches to the local cities. Richland and Kennewick jointly spend about $2 million annually to maintain their waterfronts. Kennewick in particular says it is difficult to plan improvements or even repairs under the current arrangements.
But now, at least some cities and members of the public are digging into the logistics of taking the shoreline out of federal control and openly wonder if the move means land will be sold to developers.
At a forum organized by the Columbia Basin Badger Club on Thursday, skeptics raised concerns that environmental protections won’t be honored, that the land could be sold to private parties.
They asked if Kennewick is really better equipped to manage its shoreline better than the Corps.
Don Sampson, former tribal chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, said the shoreline conversation hasn’t addressed how a transfer will preserve the tribes’ treaty rights to its traditional fishing grounds, or how cultural sites will be protected.
“The tribal treaty rights must be included in any legislation,” he said.
For skeptics, the good news is that there is no legislation pending in Congress at this point.
Staffers for Newhouse anticipate a series of public meetings to flesh out the ideas, visions and wants of the community.
Newhouse has facilitated the proposal in past sessions, but has no legislation pending. This spring, he organized a conversation with U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the Housed Armed Services Committee to discuss the plan.
Thornberry asked who would get the land, about potential legal conflicts and what, if any, uses the Corps had in mind.
Newhouse agreed to ensure community voices are heard.
Thursday, he released a statement confirming he’s reached out to the Walla Walla Tribe and the Umatillas and stands ready to meet with any and all stakeholders.
He has not drafted legislation and won’t until there have been public meetings, his staff said Thursday.
The 2018 election will likely alter the timing of when legislation might be introduced.
U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, is expected to succeed Thornberry as chair of the House Armed Forces Committee and it is unclear what that might mean for the shoreline plan.
Newhouse previously inserted language in a defense bill that required the Department of Defense to account for how it acquired the shoreline properties in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.
The military later released reams of documents showing the government paid private property owners for their land. It needed the shoreline to develop a levee system in connection with the McNary Dam, which was built in the early 1950s.
Acting as private individuals, Hastings, Fisher and Petersen say the Tri-Cities would be better served if local government rather than the Army Corps ran the shoreline.
The cities of Kennewick and Pasco collectively spend about $2 million annually to maintain public parks on land leased from the Army Corps.
They called the Army Corps an absentee landlord that allows the river-facing sides of its levees to be overrun with weeds and scrap trees and that its regulations curb local efforts to manage parks.
The threat of flooding on the Columbia River has been mitigated by a network of dams in Washington and Canada, so local officials believe the levees could be safely lowered to improve local access to the river.
Local control would give the cities a chance to capitalize on the region’s most important asset and allow limited commercial development, they argue.