The U.S. Army missed its March 1 deadline to advise Congress on how it acquired 34 miles of Columbia River shoreline behind the McNary Dam.
The report is part of an effort to transfer ownership of the shoreline to Richland, Kennewick and Pasco, which advocates say are better equipped to manage it for the economic and recreational benefit of the Mid-Columbia.
At the request of U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, Congress directed the Secretary of the Army to account for the McNary shoreline in notes attached to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017.
The Army Corps of Engineers completed a draft report on Feb. 22 and it was apparently forwarded to Washington, D.C., on March 6. As of Friday, it had not been released to Congress or the public. Newhouse issued a statement that he’s aware the deadline passed, but expects the report to finalized soon
Kennewick is a leading advocate for Mid-Columbia-based ownership, but the proposal is widely supported by neighboring cities, as well as Benton and Franklin counties and the ports of Kennewick, Richland and Pasco. In a separate initiative, Kennewick is working with the Army Corps to secure 60 acres at the west end of Columbia Park.
At 387 acres, Columbia Park is a poster child for the return-the-shoreline movement. It is Kennewick’s largest, and an ongoing financial burden. The city spends roughly $1 million annually on maintenance and capital improvements, but is severely restricted by the corps, which controls the local shoreline, in what it can do.
Mayor Steve Young said the city could clear out overgrowth and embrace its waterfront if it owned the property.
“I don’t think the public understands how different Kennewick would be if we had our land back,” he said.
The Army public affairs office was not immediately able to explain the shoreline report’s current status, though the delay may be due to leadership changes stemming from the new presidential administration. Acting Secretary Robert M. Speer took the helm when Donald Trump took office and will serve until Congress confirms a new secretary.
After two candidates dropped out, President Trump reportedly may be considering former Army flight surgeon and Tennessee state Sen. Mark Green for the post.
The delay isn’t stopping advocates from pressing their case that Congress should re-convey the shoreline to local cities.
Newhouse’s predecessor, Doc Hastings, and his return-the-shoreline team are spending March asking cities to outline plans as quickly as possible, saying they need to have ready answers when citizens ask why they want the land.
Hastings presented his case to the Kennewick City Council this week and will make a similar argument to Pasco on March 27 and Richland on March 28.
Hastings said he’s frustrated Congress hadn’t seen the report.
“It’s not an optional thing,” he said, adding, “We’re now 16 days behind what cities could do.”
Hastings, working with former Kennewick Mayor Brad Fisher and retired Tri-City Development Council vice president Gary Petersen, are telling cities Congress could act quickly once it has the report.
“There is a possibility you could have these lands re-conveyed by the end of the year,” he told Kennewick’s leaders.
While some fear local control will lead to over-commercialization of the Tri-City waterfront, the proposal gained significant momentum in 2016. An earlier effort failed for lack of political support nearly two decades ago.
There is opposition though. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation raised formidable objections in a joint meeting last year with Richland leaders. It fears a transfer could harm tribal sites and federal treaty rights. Richland and the Port of Kennewick both indicated they will strongly consider the tribe’s point of view.
Before it considers signing off on a transfer, Congress wants more detail about the combination of eminent domain and purchases that secured the land in the 1940s and 1950s and put it under Army Corps control.
While Newhouse inserted the requirement that the government account for its holdings in the House version of the defense act last fall, it wasn’t in the Senate version.
It was dropped before the final version became law. Instead, the directive to the Secretary of the Army was added to notes attached the bill. Hastings, who served in the U.S. House for 20 years, said the distinction makes no difference.
“It’s part of the National Defense Authorization Act,” he said.