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Economic and dam related articles

Time to Fix Some Locks

by Elaine Wiliams
Lewiston Morning Tribune, July 31, 2010

Army Corps set to begin $43.6 million repair project

The $43.6 million in work that will be completed in the coming year on three of the eight river locks between Lewiston and the Pacific Ocean is likely the second largest round of construction on the infrastructure since it was completed in 1975.

The locks make it possible for barges to travel from Lewiston to Portland where cargo can be transferred to ocean-going vessels and taken anywhere in the world. The challenge is that if a single lock fails, the river passage linking Idaho to the ocean is disrupted. Keeping the system going has already cost taxpayers millions, and even more large-scale projects are on the horizon.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be closing the locks at The Dalles, John Day and Lower Monumental for 14 weeks starting in December. Typically the route is shut down for two weeks in the winter for maintenance, but this time the closure has been extended so that three major projects can be finished.

Downstream lock gates are being replaced at The Dalles, John Day and Lower Monumental. The Dalles and John Day will also have new valves installed that allow the locks to fill and empty.

Bearings in the lock gate that allow it to pivot open and close are being shored up at The Dalles. Two large drums at John Day are being changed out. The drums are where cables turn that raise and lower the gate.

The refurbishing is a symptom of how old the lock system is, said Glenn Vanselow, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association in Portland.

The dams were finished in a time frame that started in 1938 and ended in 1975 with the completion of Lower Granite, the farthest inland of the eight dams on the Snake and Columbia river system.

The life expectancy of the locks was estimated between 50 to 70 years. It's hoped the parts being installed during the river closure will operate for the same period of time or longer due to advances in technology, Vanselow said. "What we're doing is maintaining the capacity of the locks."

More expenses are anticipated to keep barging between Lewiston and Portland. The upstream gate at The Dalles will need to be replaced at "some point in the future" since it's getting old, according to an e-mail from Scott Clemans, a spokesman with the Portland District of the U.S. .Army Corps of Engineers.

New steel armor is being designed for Bonneville to protect concrete slots in the lock walls from barges and tugs. Bonneville and The Dalles will need new control systems too, Clemans said.

It's also possible that "major navigation gate repair projects" will be required at McNary, Ice Harbor and Little Goose in 2015, said Gina Baltrusch, a spokeswoman for the Walla Walla District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The extent of what could be needed will be evaluated during the long outage, Baltrusch said.

The only time any of the locks have been upgraded was in 1992 when the lock at Bonneville was replaced for more than $200 million, split equally between the federal government and users, Vanselow said.

The lock at Bonneville, the oldest in the system, could only handle a tugboat and two barges, instead of the four or five barges and a tug that the other seven locks on the system accommodate, Vanselow said.

The reason Bonneville was smaller was when it opened in 1938, it was believed ocean-going ships would sail up the Columbia River, take on cargo at The Dalles and then head back to sea, Vanselow said. "It wasn't a business model that worked."

What happened instead was that tugboats collected goods from the ports along the rivers and took them to Portland. At Bonneville the groups of four or five barges would be split into twos. That process took five or six hours, compared with 30 to 40 minutes to go through the seven other locks, Vanselow said. "That was causing delays. (Tug) boats were queuing up for many hours."

Aside from that large ticket item, the other locks have had a varying number of fixes that exceeded $1 million since 1990. They include:

Other large-scale work may have been done at McNary, Lower Monumental and Little Goose prior to 1995, but that information was not made available for this story. The Walla Walla District of the corps required a federal Freedom of Information Act request for such background information. The Tribune filed its request on July 22 and was notified by the corps that a reply would be provided no later than Aug. 19.

Elaine Wiliams
Time to Fix Some Locks
Lewiston Morning Tribune, July 31, 2010

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