by Editorial Board
The Columbian, March 15, 2011
Repair work at dams nears completion; vital trade corridor set for full service
Like the flow of the rivers themselves, the reopening of navigation locks on the Columbia and Snake rivers is being felt downstream as employees at Vancouver-based Tidewater Barge Lines Inc. are being called back to work.
About 100 full-time employees had been laid off during repair work on the locks, which began in December. Another 100 employees who had worked a mixture of part-time and full-time hours are being called back for full-time work.
The importance of the move is somewhat symbolic, a dash of good economic news at a time when such news seems rare.
But there also is a literal impact. The rivers are the lifeblood of the region, serving as a prime economic arterial. The Pacific Northwest Waterways Association estimates that more than 8 million tons of cargo, valued at as much as $2 billion, move by barge on the rivers each year. We'll save you the math: That's about $5.5 million a day. Roughly 40 percent of the region's wheat exports travel by barge down the Columbia and Snake rivers, along with additional agricultural commodities such as potatoes. Heading the other direction, petroleum products, fertilizers and pesticides are sent upstream toward farming communities.
Commerce wasn't halted during the shutdown, as businesses sent items back and forth via long-haul trucks, but the closure of the locks had a huge impact, and nowhere was that impact felt more than with the workers of Tidewater Barge and their families.
The closure was necessitated by repairs to navigation locks on both rivers. Locks at the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite dams on the Snake River, plus the McNary, John Day, and Bonneville dams on the Columbia were shut down.
For the Lower Monumental Dam, an $8 million, 750-ton gate was built by Vancouver-based Thompson Metal Fab Inc. and barged in three parts to a site 254 miles upriver.
"While it will be a short-term challenge for commerce in the Northwest, the long-term benefits will be tremendous as far as the reliability of the inland barging system," Kristin Meira, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Waterways Association, told The Columbian last fall.
We hope so. The Columbia River long has been a conduit for commerce in this region, and the work on the locks has served as a reminder of the synergy between Mother Nature and her residents. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the locks, the new gates will extend the life of the facilities some 50 years.
Today, the locks at Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams are scheduled to be reopened. On Thursday, the locks at McNary Dam will reopen, followed by John Day and Bonneville dams on Saturday and The Dalles Dam on March 24.
This, in a small way, speaks to the kind of national infrastructure renovation that has been much talked about and is much needed. For too long, governments have eschewed the sort of refurbishing that might result in short-term pain but long-term gain.
Whether discussing roads, the electrical grid, the rail system or even navigational locks, the ethos of the past couple generations has been that any cost is too great and that solutions are better left to the future, never mind that those solutions -- and the consequences of ignoring them -- might be much more costly down the road.
In the long term, the renovation of the locks will assist the Northwest economy for generations, helping to keep the region viable and enriching the connection between the area's agrarian roots and its modern businesses.
But in the short term, the fact that local residents are being put back to work is the kind of news we all can use.
Extended Navigation Lock Outage US Army Corps of Engineers
Opening of Lower Monumental Dam Lock Pushed Back by Staff, Walla Walla Union Bulletin, 3/14/11
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