WALLA WALLA -- The floating freight system that carries millions of dollars in grain and steel out of Walla Walla each year will be shut down for three months in a massive overhaul of the Columbia-Snake rivers navigation system.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to shut down the river to transportation as part of a 13-week, $13.2 million replacement of the Lower Monumental Dam navigation lock.
The closure is part of a larger $46 million repair of the navigation system that stretches from Vancouver, Wash., to Lewiston, Idaho -- a major conduit in the Pacific Northwest transportation network.
Slated to begin Dec. 10, the project will mark the longest closure of the system since the dams were built, officials said. Consequently, business operators who rely on the rivers to get their goods to market must find alternative shipping methods.
Though an inconvenience to businesses -- and likely more costly to them, too -- the closure is necessary to replace aging infrastructure, Joe Saxon, chief of public affairs for the Corps' Walla Walla District office, explained to about 50 business operators at an Economic Development Advisory Committee in July.
The downstream navigation lockage -- which essentially serves as a doorway to pass the dam -- has had regular weld repairs for stress fractures in recent years, but has not been fully replaced until now. In addition to the Lower Monumental Dam, gates will also be replaced at The Dalles and John Day dams.
Left unrepaired, the downstream navigation locks at Lower Monumental Dam, as well as The Dalles and John Day dams, could become unsafe to use. The choice: a planned, coordinated closure of three months, or an eventual emergency outage that could shut down the rippling expressway for a year or longer.
"If we conducted a planned outage we can control the events," Saxon explained during the meeting at the Walla Walla Regional Airport.
Here's what's planned: starting at 6 a.m. Dec. 10, the waterway will be closed to transportation. Barge traffic will not be able to pass above The Dalles Dam. The closure not only includes replacement of three of the system's eight navigation locks, it also includes general maintenance on the rest of the system, Saxon said.
Dix Corp. of Spokane is the prime contractor for the fabrication, delivery and installation of the new gate. Vancouver, Wash.,-based Thompson Metal Fabrication is building the gate, which measures 88 feet wide, 84 feet high and 15 feet thick, and weighs about 1.4 million pounds. The gate is being fabricated in three sections, according to information on the Corps' website.
Once completed it will be delivered by barge for installation. The lock is expected to return to service the morning of March 14.
Port of Walla Walla and Corps officials are urging businesses that use the navigation system to research alternative shipping methods.
Port Executive Director Jim Kuntz said $10 million in grain is shipped from the Port's Burbank site annually. Another $7 million in scrap steel is barged out of Walla Walla.
Local grain growers have reportedly been working on a plan of action since the start of the year. Perry Dozier, a wheat farmer, Walla Walla County commissioner and board member for Northwest Grain Growers, said the organization has been trying to develop a variety of options to respond to the closure.
Northwest Grain Growers ships about 25 million bushels to Portland each year, he said. And that doesn't just take place during harvest.
The organization has been making arrangements for extra storage. It's also offered a 10-cent per bushel premium to growers who agree to sell for July and August. But with only so much storage capacity, the closure will pose a serious challenge, Dozier said.
"There's a possibility we won't have a market or be able to sell during those months," he said.
"The impacts are big."
Alternative shipping mechanisms during the down months may come with a higher price tag.
Saxon said the waterway is an efficient system. A 3,000-ton barge that carries goods from Lewiston to Portland may use 2,000 gallons of fuel.
But the same tonnage on rail requires 5,000 gallons of diesel.
On a truck, it's 15,000 gallons, Saxon said.