Companies Cheer Reopening
by Matthew Weaver
'Very large shipments of wheat are waiting to be moved,' barge company rep says
Barge traffic on the Columbia and Snake rivers was expected to return to normal by the end of the week as contractors finished work on the transportation locks at eight dams.
Though some of the work was routine maintenance, other projects included replacing the doors on the locks that raise and lower barges as they pass around the dams.
Scott Clemans of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Portland District pegged the total price tag for the work at about $59.8 million.
After the 15-week closure, wheat bound for export to Asia was to begin heading downriver and fuel and supplies moving upriver on March 26, when work on the last project was completed, Clemans said. Companies that use the rivers welcomed the reopening.
"Definitely, very large shipments of wheat are waiting to be moved," Tidewater Barge Lines spokeswoman Carol Bua said. "There's a lot of wheat that needs to get moved before the new crop comes."
Tidewater laid off half of its 200 employees during the closure, but expects all of them to return.
The large reduction in business was the biggest challenge, Bua said.
"Because we so carefully planned in advance, we've come through it and we're just so eager to have our employees come back, to be able to serve our customers again, just to resume our normal business operations," she said.
Tri Cities Grain merchandiser Jay Atchison said anything normally moved by barge shut down when the river closed Dec. 10.
"The crop was pretty well marketed, it's just a matter of us catching up on our sales," he said.
To prepare for the reopening, the company put in its logistical orders to begin to ship on contracts sold for late March, April and May, as well as new contracts signed during the closure.
Atchison declined to comment on the volume of grain the company expects to move.
Washington Grain Commission industry representative Ty Jessup said April will be busier than average on the river.
"It will be back to business as normal for the PNW," Jessup said. "You will now have your full access for barge, rail and truck."
Jessup believes the industry was well-prepared.
"There always are going to be hiccups, but overall I think it worked out as well as could be expected," he said.
"We had basically a two-year heads-up," Atchison said. "It's never good for it to happen, but we were able to prepare for it as best we could under the circumstances."
Jessup and Atchison cited rail delays due to winter conditions and high demand as other issues during the closure.
Washington State University economics professor Ken Casavant is studying the impact of the closure. The first phases of the study examined the historical movement on the river, as well as the three months prior to the closure.
"Thus far, I think it has gone fairly smoothly," he said, noting 30 to 40 percent more grain than normal was shipped prior to the closure.
Casavant is gathering data to examine cost increases for shippers and capacity issues on other modes of transportation.
Rail and some trucks picked up some of the slack during the closure, Casavant said.
"It's my expectation there will be a run back to the river by the shippers and the carriers themselves," he said. "It still remains the lowest-cost transportation option available to shippers."
Most of the work was originally slated to be completed by March 23, but delays occurred at several locks.
At Bonneville Dam, a gate was damaged during a routine operation to flush debris out of the upstream channel and through the lock. The top of the gate buckled when drain valves pulling water into the lock failed to close fully, according to the corps.
The corps worked with barge lines to accommodate their needs, Clemans said.
The final link in the system will be complete March 26, when contractors finish adjusting the downstream lock gate that they replaced at Lower Monumental Dam. The delay was attributed to high winds and rain, according to the corps.
Related Audio File:
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