In the summer of 2015, a severe drought dropped the water level at Detroit Lake to a historic low. There was so little water that a 100-year-old wagon appeared in the lake bed. Two marinas in Detroit, Kane’s Marina and Detroit Lake Marina, were unable to open for the summer season.
When the water in Detroit Lake is low and boats come out of the water – particularly in the summer – the tourism dries up, too, and businesses suffer.
“There’s a huge economic value to having those marinas be able to be operational,” Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron said.
A long-planned project that would excavate the dirt under the city’s two marinas got a kickstart of $2 million appropriated to it through the year-end $1.7 trillion federal spending package that was signed into law this week by President Joe Biden.
For a community still recovering and rebuilding after the wildfires of 2020, the excavation project has the potential to allow the marinas to stay open from April until October in some years.
With that, existing businesses – or new ones – could become a lot more financially viable.
“People are going, that’s just recreation, but that’s the economy up here and we need every dime of it,” Detroit Mayor Jim Trett said.
City’s dependency on recreation
Detroit, population 174 – down from 205 in 2020 before the wildfires – is located 50 miles east of Salem in the Santiam Canyon. The city moved about a half mile to the northwest prior to the 1953 completion of Detroit Dam. The dam on the North Santiam River created Detroit Lake.
After the timber industry declined in the 1990s, much of the city’s economy has been dependent on tourism centered around the lake, especially boating.
Detroit’s two marinas are where boats are launched and stored for the majority of the summer season.
According to Marion County, the project would allow the marinas to operate with water as low as 1,525 feet above sea level. Full pool at Detroit is 1,569 feet.
Water is drained out of the lake and down the North Santiam River every fall as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases additional water to aid fish that are migrating up the North Santiam.
In the winter, the water level at Detroit drops as low as 1,450 feet. The docks at the marinas spend much of the winter sitting on the dirt.
In the past five-plus years, city and county officials have gotten approval from the agencies they need to move the project forward.
Trett tells of going to a meeting in 2017 between mayors and U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, an Oregon Democrat, where he brought up the project. Trett said within a week, the necessary government agencies gave their approval.
“That’s when I decided I like Kurt Schrader,” Trett said.
Schrader, along with U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, also Oregon Democrats, got the $2 million for the marina project funded through the omnibus bill.
Cameron said the initial estimates were the project would cost $2 million, but it could well rise to $3 million.
“We’ll find it,” he said. “It’s worth it.”
What to do with all that dirt
The goal of the project is to remove 162,000 cubic yards of dirt and sediment from under the docks. It’s not a small amount of dirt.
“They say there’s going to be over 3,000 dump trucks coming out of that,” Trett said. “And it’s not going to be the little ones, it’s the big ones.”
A major hurdle with the project is where to place the dirt once it’s dug out.
The answer may have come long ago. About 10 years ago, a group of University of Oregon students came up with a proposal that would build a peninsula south of Kane’s Marina that would extend towards Piety Knob, the island in Detroit Lake.
“We took another stab, we hired consultants with our economic development dollars,” Cameron said. “The design is actually there. The question is can we move that dirt there, over and develop that vision by building that peninsula?”
Due to the constraints of removing the dirt only when the water is low, it can only be done in winter.
The earliest the work could be done is in the winter of 2023.
“And it may even be the year after that,” Trett said.
Other local projects receiving funds
Merkley, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said 145 local projects in Oregon will receive money through the omnibus bill.
“It’s a lot of pieces of the puzzles that have been identified at the local communities as the most significant things that they want help with,” Merkley said. “They identify it, I fight for it.”
Other projects in the Mid-Valley that will receive money from the package include:
$4 million for safety improvements in the Highway 19 and 99W corridor, as well as intersection improvements south of McMinnville.
$2.5 million toward a new transit facility in South Salem for Salem Area Mass Transit, also known as Cherriots.
$1.6 million for a water system project in Falls City.
$1.25 million for the wastewater treatment plant in Aumsville.
$1 million for transitional housing for wildfire survivors through Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency.
$500,000 for the Barbara Roberts Career Technical School in Sheridan.
$340,000 to expand the commercial truck driving program at Chemeketa Community College.
$83,000 for an emergency operations center in Dallas.
$850,000 for community land trust development in Salem and Eugene through DevNW
Bill Poehler covers Marion County for the Statesman Journal. Contact him at bpoehler@StatesmanJournal.com