by Jerry Diethelm
Hilyard Shaw, Eugene’s Millrace maker, would have loved the idea of digging an Emerald Canal millrace through Eugene, as would his counterpart in Springfield, Elias Briggs. These resourceful pioneers realized the power and the potential of waterways to transform their cities. How quickly they would grasp today the significance of an eleven-block canal connecting the blunted end of Shaw’s Millrace near 10th and Ferry St. to that concrete eyesore masquerading as Amazon Creek at 17th and Oak.

What would such an Emerald Canal be like? Try to set aside the present urban drear and call up a vision of a rich, local blend of historic millrace and San Antonio Riverwalk. Imagine a 35’-40’ waterway with broad promenades on both sides meandering beneath native trees within an urban garden. Put yourself into one of the water taxis, canoes and paddle boats as they pass under mirrored bridges and past urban town houses, restaurant terraces, shops, parks and just pleasant places to sit and marvel at the magic of light on water.

San Antonio’s Riverwalk owes much of its success to its unique mix of park and commercial uses neither dominating the other. Eugene’s Emerald Canal could provide an example of the way a linear water park and urban village could be woven through the town.

Some of you will remember back to 1982 when it almost happened. A joint committee appointed by our Lane County Commissioners and the Eugene City Council had studied the project for six months, answered their charge and found it feasible. It would cost around $22,000,000, they had reported, but there were urban and countywide benefits from the waterway system created by the canal that made it worth the cost.

The eleven-block canal link would allow water to be brought from the Willamette into the Millrace at Eugene, transported via the Emerald Canal to the Amazon, and carried past the Fairgrounds to Fern Ridge Lake. It would then flow over the dam into the Long Tom River and be put back into the Willamette north of Monroe. A relatively short in-town connection would create a very large waterway circuit that had contributions for the community everywhere along its course.

From a county perspective, there would be water for Junction City Water District farmers in the dry summers when they needed it rather than when it was convenient to release flood control discharges from Fern Ridge Lake. The feasibility committee had uncovered ambitious plans from the 1930s to build a viaduct from the Willamette to carry water to Long Tom farmers. An Emerald Canal to Amazon connection would provide a more economical way to transport water from Willamette reservoirs already authorized for this purpose. Irrigation for good farmland was a valuable agricultural benefit and would only become more so in the future.

Recreational benefits were also substantial. In the years when there wasn’t enough rain to refill Fern Ridge, a constant supply made possible by an Emerald Canal would cover unwanted mudflats, put boats back upright at their docks and money back in the pockets of concessionaires.

An Amazon Creek, too long reduced to the status of drainage ditch, could once again become a full partner in the West Eugene Wetlands. Water quality and habitat conditions would be improved, and it might one day be possible to canoe from downtown Eugene to Fern Ridge Lake, perhaps stopping at the canal fed pond and wetland garden presently being planned as a south entrance to the Lane County Fairgrounds.

Water flowing through an Amazon recreational corridor, connecting homes and schools and shopping, and full of hikers, boats and turtles, would create an east-west park and open space spine, a wetland greenway to be proud of.
But it was the flood control benefit of an Emerald Canal that could gather the most outside support in terms of federal dollars for the project. At a time of maximum flood in the Amazon Basin, when water from an overwhelmed Amazon would back up into the city – in a 100-year flood it could reach to 10th and Oak – a reversible Emerald Canal could carry all that excess water directly to the Willamette River.

The Corps and other consultants had studied the reversibility of the canal and found it feasible. Nature had conveniently left the end of the Millrace ten feet higher than the Amazon. In most years, water from the Millrace would just flow downhill. When a ten- foot or greater head of floodwater built up in the Amazon, water coming from the Millrace could be redirected temporarily back to the Willamette, freeing an Emerald Canal passagel for the water to empty to the north. There was, however, one small problem, that of moving the floodwater from the end of the canal where it met the Millrace to the river.

The Corps answer to the problem was to construct large underground storm drains from the Millrace to the river. Even with this expense, the Canal system was still an order of magnitude less expensive than the $100,000,000 it would cost to build their other alternative, a plan that required unwanted upstream dams on Coyote and Willow Creeks. Today, an enlightened Corps emphasis on improving the wetland and in-stream storage capacity of the Amazon, backed up by an Emerald Canal would provide a long-range multidimensional solution to the area’s flood control problems.

Ironically, it was the Ferry St. Bridge study that provided a less mechanical solution than the Corps’ storm drains. Changes in the Ferry St. Corridor on the South Bank should include a restored lower Millrace, the Ferry St. Corridor Citizen’s Advisory Committee had argued. The Millrace should be rebuilt, should in fact become the centerpiece for a new mixed-use district on a soon to be remodeled Agripac site. It was, after all, the 1949 Ferry St. Bridge construction that had filled in the lower Millrace, condemning it for the last 50 years to a 30" pipe. The old bridge had put it under; any major South Bank change on the Agripac site was a not to be missed opportunity to bring it back to the surface. The restored channel could be designed with enough capacity to accommodate the occasional floodwaters from the Amazon.

EWEB warmed to the idea and agreed to donate its no longer needed hogged fuel site for a Millrace Park, where the waters would dramatically tumble down the twenty-foot high bank into the Willamette. This wonderful possibility for the next phase of the Millrace industrial district was unfortunately buried in the controversy surrounding the size and necessity of a new bridge.

Why bring it all up again? The recession of the ‘80s is past. Over the past twenty years, important projects have been accomplished one by one - which is our style – in spite of many difficulties. It’s an impressive list: The Hult; Hotel and Conference Center; 6th and 7th; airport expansion; Broadway & Willamette Plaza; the reopening of Olive and Willamette streets; the Ferry St. Corridor. We have approved bonds for repairing schools, and will soon have, at long last, a new public library and some needed additions to our park system.

But the flooding problem remains. The Amazon from Amazon Park to the Fairgrounds is still ugly and unsafe. The condition of our historic Millrace remains a local embarrassment. The Agripac site is poised for change. If we are to succeed at compact urban growth, it will be critical to provide good examples of mixed-use and urban village development in and around the downtown core. The University of Oregon’s need for more Millrace water to cool an expanding campus and the needs of Amazon and Long Tom water users, only some of whom are human, are all connected. A metropolitan park and open space system with a network of waterway corridors as its lowland core is within our grasp.

Perhaps most intriguing, the Emerald Canal has a new sponsor with international waterway experience and a commitment to bring the project, feasibility studies and presentation model up to date.
Large ideas like the Emerald Canal take time to ripen and settle into their communities. They need to prove themselves and wait their turn. But the time has now come to honor Hilyard Shaw and build a millrace for the new millennium.

Jerry Diethelm is a member, along with Charles O. Porter and Jerry Rust, of the Executive Board of the Emerald Waterways Citizens Committee, Inc. He is also Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Oregon.