The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will start shutting down all eight locks on the Columbia and Snake rivers in December for repair work, with the last scheduled to reopen in mid-March.
The closures will be the longest since the last of the dams between the ocean and Lewiston was completed in 1972, corps spokesman Scott Clemans said.
They also come as wheat growers, among the system’s heaviest users, seize on an active export market to move their crops downstream to Portland.
“We’re hoping the disruption is not real bad,” said Glen Squires, vice president of the Washington Wheat Commission.
Clemans said the corps alerted shippers to the pending closures more than a year ago. Routine, two-week maintenance shutdowns were not keeping up with the needed work, he said, especially on The Dalles, John Day and Lower Monument locks, where gates, bearings and valves are worn out. He said those three locks together will get more than $40 million in repairs. The other five will get more than the usual maintenance, he said.
The alternative to the three-month outage was a catastrophic breakdown that might put a lock, and any ports upstream, out of service for as much as a year, Clemans said.
Squires said export customers were told last year shipping would be disrupted.
He said they responded by buying early, which has worked to their benefit, and to that of farmers who sold wheat early to avoid the bottleneck. Grain elevators, he said, ordered more railroad cars.
“Everybody is kind of doing everything they can to account for the river being down,” said Squires, adding that high prices have offset some of the impact.
The Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, a trade group for river shippers, said barge companies have positioned extra barges for storage of wheat bound downstream, and for gasoline at Tri-Cities terminals.