Barging interests said permanently lowering the Columbia River to expose Celilo Falls will never happen.
“These groups, when they attack the river system, they always say, ‘It’s only a few barges a day,’ but that misses the point of what barging is,” said Kristin Meira, executive director of Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, which represents the barging industry.
Barging is the most economical way to ship bulk items, and a few barges a day haul the same as hundreds of rail cars and “hundreds and hundreds of trucks,” she said.
“Only a few barges out there, that’s the whole point of the efficiency of the system,” she said.
Sean Cruz, with Friends of Celilo Falls, is seeking to permanently lower the river level to expose Celilo Falls and restore the Native American fishery there. (See related story.)
Rod Lemley, maintenance supervisor with Bernert Barge Lines, which has a repair yard in The Dalles, said a four-barge tow, which is the typical tow, is the equivalent of 100 to 110 train cars, or 560 semi-trucks.
“That’s why river transportation is the cheapest mode of transportation, and then the railroad is next and then the trucking,” he said.
If cargo wasn’t on the river, “It’s going to be on a train or on a truck and you’re going to have all that traffic on [Interstate] 84 and [Hwy] 14,” according to Lemley.
Companies are trying to figure out how to put more stuff on barges, “to lighten up the load on the freeways.”
The notion that barging could go off the river below The Dalles Dam, then resume upriver, past the John Day Dam, which is the next dam in the river system, is also unworkable, Meira said.
Each time cargo is handled, the cost goes up exponentially. So once it’s off the river, it won’t be put back on the river for transport, she said.
Meira said she had never heard of abandonment of a barging system on any rivers in America.
“Nope, definitely not. This is a very important mode of transportation for the region that also has national benefits. I’ve not heard of anyone arguing to give up an entire mode of transportation in our region.” She noted, “The barge has been heavily used by eastern Oregon and eastern Washington wheat farmers. The wheat folks are typically pretty eloquent in talking about their ability to compete overseas” because of their access to inexpensive barging.
Lemley noted, “There is so much more involved than river traffic. Those dams weren’t put in just for tugboats, they were put in for flood control and irrigation and electricity. The tugboat is a very small part of it.”
He said his company hauls wood chips, logs, aggregate, scrap steel and containers.
He said Bernert is a relatively small, family-owned company, with 11 barges. The big barge operators are Tidewater, which has about 100 barges, and Shaver, which has about 20, he said.
An attempt to stop barge traffic is nothing new, Lemley said.
“There’s always people making noise wanting to stop the barges.”
The groups range from Native American activists to environmentalists to rafters who want the dams gone “so they could shoot the rapids like they do in the Grand Canyon. There used to be a lot of rapids on the Columbia.”
But opponents don’t think about electricity or flood control “or the millions of acres of land that it irrigates.”
Lemley felt seeking a lowered river level was akin to removing the dams. “You might lower it down enough to see the falls, but why would you bother to have the dam?” he said.
Lemley said officials lowered the pool behind Lower Granite Dam and Little Goose Dam on the Snake River and “stuff started sliding and a whole bunch of stuff got wrecked.”
“They lowered them for an experiment to show people what would happen,” he said.
He said that work was done when there was a big push to take out the four dams on the Snake River.