One of two ways that Pacific Northwest farmers get their wheat to export in Portland has been shut down after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stopped barge traffic on the Columbia River around the Bonneville Dam after a crack was found on a critical part of one of its massive locks.
With the navigation lock inoperable, barges can’t push upstream from Bonneville Dam, which is about 40 miles upstream from Portland. The broken lock is also preventing barges hauling wheat, logs and other freight from Idaho, Oregon and Washington from reaching port.
The crack was discovered late last week, and the lock was drained this weekend. Corps officials could not immediately say how long the repairs will take, spokesman Chris Gaylord said.
“We’re trying to be really, really transparent and feed people updates as quickly as possible,” he said. “We’ve been getting work done out there as quickly as possible.”
Barges haul about 8 million tons of cargo on the Columbia and Snake rivers each year, and 53% of U.S. wheat exports were transported on the Columbia River in 2017, the latest year available, said Kristin Meira, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.
About $2 billion in commercial cargo travels the entire system annually, according to the Corps of Engineers.
“It’s essentially the cork in the bottle for the whole rest of the system. If the navigation lock at Bonneville Dam is down, essentially the rest of the river system is down,” Meira said. “It is absolutely critical that the Corps of Engineers reopen that lock as soon as possible.”
Glen Squires, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission, said about 60% to 65% of Washington wheat is barged to Portland. Some 90% of all wheat grown in Washington is exported to foreign markets.
“Obviously, it’s not good,” Squires said. “If it’s down a couple days, it’s probably not a huge impact. If it’s a week or two, then it becomes more problematic.”
Farmers rely on the barge traffic when negotiating a shipping price with BNSF Railway Corp., he said.
“The river is mightily important to moving grain, not just for Washington, but North Idaho and most of Oregon,” he said. “It provides competition. Competition with the railroads keeps rates down.”
Navigation locks allow the large barges to pass through the massive concrete dams that were built across the Columbia and Snake rivers decades ago to generate hydroelectricity for the U.S. West.
Locks work by allowing a boat to enter a chamber that is sealed – essentially like a giant concrete bathtub – before the water level is lowered or raised to match the level of the river on the other side of the dam. Then the lock opens on the other side and the boat exits.
The concrete sill that cracked on the lock in the Bonneville Dam is similar to a rubber threshold on the bottom of a door. Just as that rubber strip creates a seal to keep cold air and moisture from leaking in under the door, the concrete sill creates a seal to keep water in the lock. The cracked concrete is like having a crack in a full bathtub, said Gaylord, the Army Corps spokesman.
The dams close each year for a week for maintenance and for several months once every five to six years, said Rob Rich, vice president of marine services for Shaver Transportation. But in those instances, farmers and shippers and barge companies have two years of notice, allowing them to plan ahead, he said.
Rich said half of his company’s business comes from barges that tow cargo on the river system above the Bonneville Dam, and he is anxiously awaiting more information about when the lock will be repaired.
Farmers truck their wheat to 27 inland grain elevators for loading onto barges headed to the Pacific Ocean and then to Asia. Rail and trucking aren’t reliable alternatives, and most of the rail system is used for grain coming from the Midwest, Rich said.
“I’ve been working on this system for 40 years and I can count on my hand the number of times that we had emergency outages, where we didn’t know this was going to happen,” Rich said. “It’s the only way they can ship.”
Squires said the last time the locks closed for a significant amount of time, the rail shipping rates were raised by about 40%.
While farmers in the Inland Northwest are finishing the wheat harvest, this is not typically a heavy transport time of year.
“Our exports are moving. It’s just hard to know how much impact this is going to have,” Squires said. “My experience has been the Corps is focused pretty hard in keeping that thing open. They let everybody know and bring resources to bear to get things fixed.
“I would expect the same thing to happen here.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.