By MATTHEW WEAVER
STARBUCK, Wash.-- The Columbia-Snake river system is the top wheat export gateway in the nation, and it is vital to keep it well-maintained, Kristin Meira, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Direct Waterways Association, says.
The system is the third-largest grain export gateway in the world, she said. Roughly 3 million tons of cargo with an annual value of roughly $3 billion is transported by barge to ports each year on the system.
"We don't have back-up navigation locks," she said. "If we have one fail, the impacts will be felt immediately throughout the region and elsewhere throughout the nation."
The locks allow barge traffic to bypass dams along the rivers.
The association will be speaking with congressional representatives in hopes of securing funding for major maintenance projects that are needed at some of the locks along the river.
The next maintenance closure will take place in 2017 at the earliest, she said.
"It's going to take a while to put together the funding necessary to plan, design and fabricate the new components to be fitted in during an extended closure," she said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is beginning to request funding to plan for the maintenance projects, so it's too soon to estimate the total cost, she said.
The corps on March 14 offered farmers and others involved in agriculture a tour of The Dalles Dam in Dalles, Ore., and the Little Goose Dam in Starbuck, Wash., during routine scheduled maintenance.
Army Corps Lt. Col. Drew Kelly showcased the complexity of maintaining the locks, which raise and lower barges at several dams along the river.
Jim Simonsen, chief of maintenance for Little Goose Dam, said needs include replacing corroded bolts on the bottom bearing that the lock gate sits on.
"The economic importance of the locks and navigation to the entire region, we take very seriously," he said.
Tom Kammerzell, a Colfax, Wash., wheat and cattle farmer and Port of Whitman County commissioner, likened the need for maintenance to changing the oil in a car to keep it running.
Producers would be challenged by the extra expense of getting crops to the seaports without the river system, Kammerzell said.
"The producers know where the system is," he said. "It's making sure legislators know how important it is to keep the funds to keep it maintained."