First published in the Register Guard on August 22nd, 2018. For the long-neglected Eugene Millrace, the University of Oregon’s new Knight science campus could be an unexpected boon.
The narrow waterway, which runs between Franklin Boulevard and the Willamette River, has a rich history. In recent decades, however, it has been best known for its murky and stagnant water, its blackberry- and horsetail-covered banks, and as a receptacle for garbage, dirty stormwater from nearby parking lots, and the occasional pledge from UO fraternities.
The millrace runs only a few feet from the under-construction first building of the new $1 billion Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact and that proximity to the UO’s new crown jewel is already paying dividends. The UO has been quietly planning a $1 million enhancement project on a short stretch of the millrace directly adjacent to campus, with new bridges and a new boardwalk, as well as environmental work to improve the water’s quality and nearby vegetation.
After decades of fruitless talk about the millrace’s potential and how to revive it, the UO’s project is the first actual action — albeit on a limited scale.
Following the recent controversy about the university tearing down its nearly century-old Hayward Field, Mike Harwood, the UO’s vice president for campus planning, said the restoration of another historical asset feels like “one of those win-wins for everybody.”
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” he added. “It helps the university but it’s a win for the community because it’s a part of our heritage that we have kind of ignored.”
Eugene’s earliest white settlers dug the millrace in 1851 to spin waterwheels that powered the city’s first industrial development. The waterway soon became a major recreation canal for city residents and the university community, with boathouses renting out skiffs and canoes to coeds and townsfolk starting in the 1890s.
An annual Canoe Fete on the Millrace was a major fixture of the city’s calendar for 50 years, with elaborate floats drifting on the waterway. The millrace was even prominently featured in a 1929 silent picture called Ed’s Coed. But in the post-World War II era, it was partially buried and slowly allowed to deteriorate.
“There was definitely a post-WWII fade of the millrace,” said Bob Hart, executive director of the Lane County Historical Society.
Subsequent restoration plans “all shipwrecked,” he added. “The millrace is one of those historical legacies that never seems to get high on anyone’s agenda.”
The UO’s new project touches only about a 600-foot stretch of the 2-mile-long waterway, but the changes will be significant, according to an application submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The work won’t start until next summer at the earliest, after the Knight Campus building is complete. The UO will, in fact, be drying out the millrace in that stretch later this summer and diverting the water downstream through a large pipe, so crews can use the millrace’s bed as part of their work on the building.
“There’s gonna be some warts before the really nice stuff happens,” Harwood said. “We’re going to make it look worse before it looks better.”
Eventually, the university plans to dredge up 2,800 cubic yards of silt and sediment from the bottom of the waterway — potentially weighing 4,000 tons — deepening the channel from an average of 2 feet to 7 feet for most of the stretch. It will also be re-grading the millrace’s banks, and installing logs with root wads, boulders, and coir soil wraps to limit erosion.
The changes should enhance the water quality and the habitat potential for fish and amphibians. Native plants — sword fern, kelsey dogwood and fruited bullrush, among others — will then be planted on the banks, and vegetated water treatment areas will be added to improve the quality of the stormwater runoff.
“The deeper the water, the healthier it is because it doesn’t get affected so much by sunlight,” Harwood said. “The water (now) is shallow and you get a lot of algae and stuff because it gets so warm” and it’s less attractive to fish.
Harwood said the UO is also considering whether to increase the millrace’s flow by pumping more water from the Willamette River into the channel. That could further improve the stream’s quality. Tests by the UO found excess nutrients, dissolved oxygen, and heavy metals in the waterway.
Next to the Knight Campus building, the project will build a 360-foot long concrete decking boardwalk for pedestrians and cyclists, along with a new pedestrian bridge and a rebuilt bridge across the millrace. Plans for a section of “stadium steps” to jut out overlooking the millrace have likely been scrapped, however, due to cost constraints, UO officials said.
The bigger vision, from Harwood’s perspective, is eventually restoring the full stretch of the millrace on UO property. (The university isn’t planning to be involved in any work on sections south of Franklin Boulevard). Harwood said he could even see sections, including the Mill Pond, where canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards could be re-introduced.
“How can we break the remaining sections into discrete projects that make sense?” he said, when asked about next steps. “Because there’s no way we’re going to be able to go to the city, the state, the university administration and say we want to fund it all at once.”
No recent cost estimates have been made for restoring the millrace, but, even back in the 1990s, the work was projected to cost $22 million.
Harwood completed a similar project when he worked at North Carolina State University, although he warned it was “a 10-year slog” and involved cobbling together local, state and federal funds.
Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis said it’s heartening that the UO is kick-starting work on the millrace.
“There are citizens who have been advocating for improvements and we have been eager to upgrade the millrace for many years,” she said. “Fundamentally we are appreciative of the university’s efforts to invest in that part of our urban landscape.”
But she added that the council doesn’t have any discussions about other millrace work “on our immediate agenda.”
“We do have a lot of other projects going on at the moment,” she said. “It may come up at a later point.”
Jerry Diethelm, a longtime leading advocate for restoring the millrace and a former UO professor, said he hadn’t heard anything about the new project.
“Hope it indicates a commitment to more,” he said.
Hart, of the historical society, said he felt the UO deserves “a pat on the back” for doing some “actual preservation” of the millrace, especially given the school’s “reputation of ‘knock it down, build it up.’”
But he said he feels Eugene residents more generally should take some ownership of the project.
“We seem to be more present-oriented here,” compared to other communities in the Willamette Valley, Hart said. “We seem to lack an appreciation sometimes of what you can gain by looking back.”