LITTLE GOOSE LOCK AND DAM - The flow topped 125,000 cubic feet per second in on March 11, 2014, here, at the second of the Snake River dams grain barges encounter below Clarkston. Rain and thawing at lower elevations brought the water down uncommonly early that spring, but apart from its timing, the flow was nothing out of the ordinary. Little Goose and dams along the Columbia/Snake River System went about their routine maintenance.
That’s when engineers found a real problem at Little Goose. Cracks in a steel part involved in opening and closing the downstream gate required emergency repairs. For safety’s sake, the Army Corps of Engineers put the shipping season on hold. The emergency repairs were completed ahead of schedule and operations resumed that April 21; by the Corps’ estimate at the time, the quick fix made it possible for as much as 1.5 million tons of cargo to pass that dam during the five months that followed.
That was the third year of a record grain haul out of the Lewis-Clark Terminal, which was then averaging 22.5 million bushels annually, but a need for additional repair work has been looming over the region’s primary trade route ever since – not only at Little Goose, but at the Dalles, at Ice Harbor, and at Lower Monumental. In May 2015, the Corps announced a complete shutdown of the navigation system this winter, with the river system to be closed Dec. 12 through March 20, 2017.
The repair plan has drawn praise from the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association – a group of public ports, navigation, transportation, international trade, tourism, agriculture, forest products, energy and local government interests. That’s in part because the work won’t impede barges like the ones that carried 2 million bushels of wheat through Lower Granite Dam during the peak season last September.
“It brings more reliability and safety to the system,” PNWA executive director Kristin Meira said. “That’s something our two Corps districts out here really excel in. The Portland and Walla Walla districts share responsibility for our inland navigation system all the way to Lewiston and they are outstanding at anticipating which components need to be switched out and getting after it before they fail.”
While the port of Lewiston receives loads like Clearwater Paper’s new digester – a steel tower that will rise 200 feet into East Lewiston’s industrial skyline scheduled for completion in September 2017 – the downriver traffic connects 17,000 square miles of Palouse and Camas Prairie farmland to global markets by way of trucks from local elevators to Lewis-Clark Terminal’s 7.5 million bushel bins and then by a four-day riverboat trip to Portland.
“This is the top wheat export gateway in the United States and our inland barging system plays a key role in that,” Meira said, noting that rail transportation is also critical, as “just one mode could not handle the volume of cargo we have moving.”
The system as a whole – which spans the 468 river miles from Lewiston to the Pacific Ocean – annually handles nine million tons of cargo worth about $3 billion and about 40 percent of all American wheat.
While the digester didn’t have far to go from the dock to the assembly site, some of the highly specialized machinery that comes to Lewiston from across the Pacific Rim is transferred to trucks or rails for trips yet farther inland.
Some of the biggest freight has been energy industry equipment bound for Canada to produce marketable oil from vast tracts of bitumen. Activists have pledged to block some of those trucks – the so-called megaloads – from using U.S. Highway 12. Meanwhile, both presidential front-runners told voters they would oppose a gigantic trade deal now before Congress that would deepen commercial connections between a dozen Pacific Rim countries and consolidate 40 percent of Pacific trade under one set of rules.
While the anti-megaloads activists have been described as extremists for their attempts to legally and sometimes physically block the energy industry machinery, both mainstream political parties nominated candidates who spoke sharply against deals that, like the Trans Pacific Partnership, would lower international trade barriers.
National trade proponents had been focused on objections coming from elsewhere in the world, as when, on March 10, 2014, the day before the flow at Little Goose tipped 125,000 cfs, National Foreign Trade Council then-president Bill Reinsch spoke to the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association about TPP. Reinsch said: “It is ironic that despite all the speeches about a 21st century agreement, new issues, etc., the big fights are over Australian sugar, New Zealand dairy products, Vietnamese apparel, and, increasingly, Japanese rice and other agricultural products – the same things we've been arguing about for 50 years.”
Thus, even as the Corps works this winter to refurbish the physical structures that speed Pacific trade in the American Northwest, the underlying legal edifices are showing cracks in public confidence that may require repair.
Nationally, the cracks may not be as deep as electoral forces made them appear, as Reinsch pointed out to Fortune Magazine this October: “The antitrade folks are very loud, well organized, creative and persistent…but in big parts of the rest of the country, it doesn’t play.” Fortune also cited the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which found 65 percent of Americans say globalization, “especially the increasing connections of our economy with others around the world, is mostly good for the United States…with majorities across the political spectrum expressing a positive view.”
Regionally, a major test began this fall, with the opening in September of a federal regulatory review known as the Columbia River System Operations EIS. The EIS – environmental impact statement – will list alternatives for long-term operation of the river system by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration. Information about the EIS is online at www.crso.info.