This lock on the lower Monumental Dam will be closed for repairs starting in early December. // PHOTO COURTESY USACE
Three navigation locks along the Columbia and Snake rivers will close in December for the longest period ever, prompting the grain industry to adapt and the barge lines to plan layoffs.
Every year the navigation locks along the Columbia and Snake River close for two weeks for routine maintenance, but this year’s closure will last for 14 weeks. The Dalles, John Day and Lower Monumental locks are being replaced at a cost of more than $42 million funded in part by the American Recovering and Reinvestment Act. Engineers are concerned about mechanical failure of the 50-year-old equipment. The maintenance effectively closes off the entire inland system, which pressures producers and exporters to adapt
Portland-based Shaver Transportation is using its 16 grain barges for storage during the closure and laying off the crews who operate them. Tidewater Barge Lines, based in Vancouver, generates 85% of its revenue above The Dalles. Out of 17 barge tugs, only two will be active. “We are going to be laying off right through the organization,” says Tidewater spokesman John Pigott. The barge lines want to move product before the closure.
Approximately 75% of all white wheat is moved by barge because the Columbia River flows through the primary growing regions. Industry leaders have been planning for the closure for more than a year. Some producers will use alternative transportation methods such as rail and truck, but most are trying to ship their grain early. “A little bit of everything will get the job done,” says Steve Wirsching with the U.S. Wheat Association.
However, shipping the grain early leads to storage capacity problems. “We are trying to accumulate as many loaded barges as we can get prior to the closure,” says Portland-based Columbia Grain’s CEO Tom Hammond. Columbia Grain has a total storage capacity of 4 million bushels and loads approximately 300 barges a year. The closure will cut about 25% of those barges from the schedule, but Columbia Grain will continue to load rail cars and trucks. Mid Columbia Producers will continue to load barges from its elevator located on the west side of The Dalles.
Those involved are working to minimize the length of the closure, maximize the maintenance completed and maintain the supply of goods. It’s not a “doom-and-gloom situation,” says Rob Rich of Shaver Transportation. He understands the maintenance is critical and will keep the locks functional for another 50 to 70 years.