Debris, high water and the Snake River’s powerful, swirling current are disrupting shipping in Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
The river’s weekly cruise boat traffic has also come to a near halt.
Barge companies say even their strongest tugboats are struggling to navigate the river, which is predicted to keep swelling as mountain snow melts in Montana and Idaho.
“You go downriver real quick, but coming up is tough. It’s a hard go right now,” said Skip Hart, a manager with Tidewater Barge Lines.
SD&S; Barge Lines officials said Tuesday they’ll soon be reducing loads on its barges by 500 to 700 tons, delaying shipments and boosting costs.
Farmers use barges to move grain, and Potlatch Corp. transports pulp and paper products down the Snake from Lewiston, Idaho - the West’s most inland seaport, 465 river miles from the Pacific Ocean.
Tuesday, the river was dumping 180,000 cubic feet per second into the reservoir behind Lower Granite Dam south of Pullman, where officials were releasing 174,000 cfs through roaring spillways and turbines.
The spilled water creates odd currents, dangerous eddies and large rapids, complicating navigation through the dam’s locks.
The “Queen of the West” stern-wheeler won’t cruise the Snake for two weeks for fear that debris in the river will damage its paddles. Alaska Cruise West said its 80-passenger “Spirit of Columbia” isn’t making the trip either.
When the dam releases more than 150,000 cfs, boat propellers can’t grab onto the highly aerated water to navigate into the locks, said Harmony Crawford of Seattle-based Alaska Cruise West.
“This is the first year we’ve had to modify our itinerary because of excessive spills,” Crawford said. “We basically aren’t going into the Snake River at all.”
The usual route takes passengers from Portland up the Columbia and Snake rivers to Lewiston, where they then jet-boat into Hell’s Canyon.
Instead, Alaska Cruise West is docking near Pasco and busing passengers to Lewiston, forgoing the entire Snake River segment.
That means Pasco businesses are reaping the financial gain from moorage fees, refueling and other services usually reserved for the Port of Whitman County’s Boyer Park Marina.
“We are prepared to do this for three or four weeks,” Crawford said. “It is frustrating, and I do feel bad for all those Snake River businesses.”
Port of Whitman County Manager Randy Bostrum said they receive 35 to 45 cruise boat dockings per season, at $100 per vessel.
There have been only two so far this spring, one of which was eight hours behind schedule.
“Safety is an issue, and there’s a lot of debris at night that they can’t see,” Bostrum said. “It’s just an unusual runoff with the amount of snowpack in Idaho.”
There are other shipping problems related to the high water.
Silt is settling back into areas the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged last year, causing docking problems at the Lewiston and Clarkston, Wash., ports.
There are also five yachts waiting to be shipped from Canada. The million-dollar yachts are built in Canada and shipped on inland waterways to Lewiston, then hauled in trucks to Texas and Florida.
“The people building these boats have been planning on this for six months to a year,” said Rick Davis, Port of Clarkston operations director. “With the debris, those boats will be delayed coming in here.”
Local boaters are being urged to use caution.
“It is a dangerous situation,” Bostrum said. “We are not encouraging people to be out on the river if they don’t know how to handle a very fast-flowing river situation.”
The danger should escalate in coming weeks. Port officials predict the Snake will reach 300,000 cfs by late spring.
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