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100 Years For The Ballard Locks Means A Centennial For The Machinery Too

Rich Deline's love affair with the Ballard Locks started decades ago, as he walked the gardens as a forestry student at the University of Washington.  

It persists to this day. 

"This is like an oasis in the city," he said during a recent visit to the locks' botanical garden. "I mean, it just feels good when you walk in the gates."

But nowadays, there's another emotion as well: Frustration.

As he walks through the locks, he points out century-old machinery, faded signs and decades-old educational videos. 

Deline said he can't understand how a place that attracts more than a million visitors and serves thousands of boaters each year can struggle to raise enough money for maintenance.

"It doesn't make sense," he said. "It contributes to the economy. It's a high tourist attraction. Why? Why is this place falling apart?" 

Deline's bafflement reached a point that, a few years ago, he helped start a foundation that raises private money for tourist and visitor amenities at the federally-owned sites like the Ballard Locks.

His ambitions include making the locks a brighter, more modern place for tourists who already flock there to marvel at the engineering or witness the salmon run. 

But the problems run deeper, he said.  

World War I-Era Equipment

Seattle's Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, known locally as the Ballard Locks, move boats between the high water levels of Lake Washington and Lake Union to the lower water level of Puget Sound.

They're the busiest locks in the country, with about 50,000 vessels -- from fishing boats to yachts to kayaks -- passing through each year.

But the Ballard Locks' 100th anniversary this summer has drawn attention to an austere reality: The locks still rely on machinery from the era of President Woodrow Wilson. 

A crane that's part of the locks' emergency closure system dates back to 1920, and needs replacement, according to officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Some machinery at the locks is even older, requiring specially-made parts from a shrinking pool of local craftspeople who know how to make them. 

Deline said a century of use and exposure to saltwater has taken its toll.

Credit Will James / KNKX
Rich Deline helped start a foundation that raises private money for tourist and visitor amenities at the Ballard Locks

"There’s a number of things that just simply don’t work now and then," he said.

Officials with the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the locks, say they do $5 to $10 million worth of repairs and maintenance each year, and safety is a top priority. 

But the corps has a list of $40 to $50 million worth of outstanding projects at the Ballard Locks.

In 2012, corps officials lowered the locks' safety rating to two out of five, down from four out of five.

An Army Corps of Engineers spokesman said that, despite the downgrade, the locks are safe and not at imminent risk of failure. 

High Traffic, But Low Cargo 

Deline faults a quirk of the locks' funding formula: Federal officials base funding for the locks in part on the tonnage of commercial cargo that passes through. 

Much of the traffic through the Ballard Locks is recreational. And although the locks serve Lake Washington's fishing fleet, the vessels are empty when they pass through because fishermen process their catch elsewhere.

Even though these are the busiest locks in the country, the corps considers them a relatively low priority for commercial traffic. 

That's problematic because the Ballard Locks relies almost entirely on federal funding. People who drive boats through the locks don't pay anything, nor do tourists.

Nor do Seattle taxpayers, at least not on a regular basis. City officials have pitched in for individual projects over the years. 

From Dams And Levees, Parks Are Born

Deline said the funding problems he points to diminish the experience of tourists as well. His group, The Corps Foundation, is trying to raise as much as $2 million for a revamp of the concrete chamber where visitors watch salmon pass through the locks. He said he wants to make it look a little less like a "dungeon." 

Next, he hopes to raise $3 million for a renovation of the visitor center. 

The plight of the Ballard Locks, he said, reflects a larger shift for the Army Corps of Engineers. The corps' mission is to build and maintain infrastructure that supports commerce and protects the public. Dams and levees, for example. 

But, as decades have passed, many of those projects have become de facto parks. Sites overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers attract 250 million visitors each year, almost as much as sites run by the National Parks Service, which get around 300 million visits per year.

But the Army Corps of Engineers gets a fraction of the funding for recreation. 

"After a while, all these treasured places have developed as a result of the corps’s work," Deline said. "But they don’t have a budget, basically, for this natural resource that they have.” 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.