Shipping on the Columbia River was coming to a halt this morning as a historic shutdown of the river's lock system began.
One result is that Mid-Columbia drivers can expect higher gas prices and possible fuel shortages during the 14-week project.
The closure will allow the Army Corps of Engineers to replace the massive navigation lock gates at three dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers -- Lower Monumental, John Day and The Dalles.
The work will shift transportation of everything from food to fuel onto the highways and the railroads.
Gas prices will go up because of added transportation costs, state energy officials say, though no one knows how much.
And the state's advice to drivers who will pay more for their gas?
In a document on the fuel supply outlook during the closure, the No. 1 way the fuel shortage will be dealt with is "through reduced demand due to higher prices."
"We're going to have to see how it works," said Mark Anderson, an energy analyst with the state Department of Commerce. "There may be some rough times."
State officials are warning there could be gas shortages in Eastern Washington during the closure -- especially if bad weather hits. Drivers are warned to keep gas tanks full and consider ways to cut down on driving. Officials also are discouraging people from topping off their tanks, as it could cause longer lines at gas stations.
Normally, 1.47 million gallons of fuel are shipped from Portland to the Port of Pasco every day for delivery around Eastern Washington. State energy officials warn that fuel now will have to move by truck or train.
That will mean another 1,750 tankers on the highways during the locks closure, according to the Coast Guard. And if bad weather hits, those trucks could have trouble making deliveries.
Anderson said he has talked with fuel companies and believes the state is as ready as it can be. Gas suppliers are storing extra fuel, pipelines are being pushed to capacity, and trucks and trains are booked.
"It's never been done before," Anderson said. "It's going to stress the system."
But bad weather or other problems could put even more stress on supply -- and cost -- of gasoline.
While people can report what they think is price gouging to the state Attorney General's Office, Douglas Walsh, chief of the Consumer Protection Division, said high prices alone don't mean a business has broken the law.
"High prices due to low supply and high demand is not price gouging," Walsh said. "Unconscionable pricing that bears no connection to circumstances is price gouging. High prices won't get us moving. Unconscionable prices will."
The state will monitor gas prices in Eastern Washington but is counting on consumers to file complaints when they think they see price gouging, Walsh said.
The state will look for patterns of complaints that might drive it to take a closer look. Walsh said consumers receive some redress in 60 percent of the complaints filed with his office.
Complaints can be filed at www.atg.wa.gov.
* Cathy Kessinger: 509-582-1535; firstname.lastname@example.org