River users play catch up

With Columbia-Snake traffic moving again, shippers are hustling to make up for lost time

By Elaine Williams of the Tribune
April 3, 2011
The Lewis-Clark Grain Terminal will be sending out about 25 barges a month from now until July to make for time lost when the locks were closed.

The locks were reopened Tuesday after a 31/2-month renovation. It was the longest shutdown since the creation of the river system that allows the barges to reach Lewiston.

“Normally this time of year, one dozen barges a month would be about the norm,” Arvid Lyons said. He’s the manager of a cooperative that runs a grain elevator at the Port of Lewiston, where bulk barges are filled with grain bound for Portland.

The terminal was among the operations in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley that experienced the effect of the suspension of commercial river traffic from Portland to Lewiston from Dec. 10 to March 26.

Typically the system is down for about two or three weeks in the winter for maintenance when shipping hits its lowest point. The extended closure allowed the replacement of downstream gates at three of the eight locks on the Snake and Columbia rivers between Lewiston and Portland.

While river users will benefit from the rehabilitation, the work has created short-term headaches. The small percentage of cargo that did leave the port while the locks were down departed by rail at prices higher than barging, said David Doeringsfeld, manager of the Port of Lewiston.

That left between 40 percent to 50 percent of the region’s wheat crop will ship in April, May and June instead of the 20 percent to 30 percent that would move in a regular year, Lyons said.

The higher volume also will strain staff at country elevators. In the spring, they usually focus on providing seeds and fertilizer to farmers, not trucking commodities to Lewiston, Lyons said.

Weather could complicate what is already a hectic schedule. That happened Thursday, when the two barges canceled because of high winds, Lyons said. “It’s not safe for them to travel.”

Elevators continued to buy grain, so farmers were insulated from the effect of the closure, said Lyons, who added prices didn’t appear to be hurt by the outage.

Ag-related businesses weren’t the only ones feeling the pinch from the locks’ restoration. Activity returned to TGM Investments at the Port of Wilma west of Clarkston, where last week it offloaded barges of sawdust for Clearwater Paper, said Gaylord Newbry, an owner of the business.

He had to temporarily lay off a couple of employees, while still meeting fixed expenses like lease payments and insurance during a stretch that lasted nearly a third of the year, Newbry said. “We finally have something going on. It’s really important.”

The renewal of river traffic also took a load off Lyons. “When you come to work, things seem right when you see a barge sitting out there. Things look how they’re supposed to look.”

Williams may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2261.