Temporary loss of locks demonstrates river's value

The 14-week shutdown of shipping on the Columbia and Snake rivers that begins next month is bad news for dam-breaching advocates.

The evidence always has weighed against extremists who want to dismantle the system's dams, starting with the lower Snake River.

But the arsenal of facts against breaching will be that much stronger after the extended outage starts next month.

The purpose is to repair the aging system of locks that allows boats to pass through the dams.

Plans call for the Army Corps of Engineers to replace and test downstream navigation gates at The Dalles, John Day and Lower Monumental dams.

The $50 million project, paid with federal stimulus money, is clearly needed to keep barge traffic safely moving through the aging system.

But as a bonus, the loss of river traffic will make a case for the river's value as a transportation system.

The numbers are already known. As Herald reporter Cathy Kessinger recently noted, "The Columbia-Snake River system is the lifeblood of agriculture and industry in the region, annually carrying 40 million tons of cargo worth $17 billion."

At a minimum, expect thousands more semi-trucks on Mid-Columbia highways and additional delays at railroad crossings as train traffic increases to pick up the slack.

Farmers, buyers and other shippers have been planning for more than a year for the extended outage. The advance work will soften the blow, but we'll all still feel it -- if nowhere else, then at the gas pump.

The petroleum industry, ostensibly for proprietary reasons, has been tight-lipped about its plans. The Coast Guard estimates an additional 1,750 tanker trucks will be needed to carry fuel during the locks closure.

Trucks are a less desirable and more expensive alternative to barging fuel up the Columbia.

Mark Anderson, senior energy policy specialist for the Washington Department of Commerce, told the Herald that he's "anticipating some kind of price increase."

We can hope for a minimal effect. On Friday, the average cost for a gallon of regular unleaded in Tri-Cities was $3.115, according to AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report.

That was the second highest of Washington's metropolitan areas, behind Bellingham, which came in at $3.155 a gallon.

It's one place where we don't want to be No. 1.

The Mid-Columbia will survive 14 weeks without barge traffic, of course. And have a better appreciation for the benefits that come from the region's system of dams as a result.

The growing demand for electricity ought to be enough reason to abandon the idea of taking down our dams.

The 31 federally owned multipurpose dams on the Columbia and its tributaries provide about 60 percent of the region's hydroelectric generating capacity, according to the Bonneville Power Administration.

You'd need 38 nuclear reactors with the output of the Columbia Generating station to replace the electricity the dams provide.

If the renewable, green energy the dams provide hasn't silenced dam-breaching advocates, then the shutdown of barge traffic isn't likely to either.

But it will add weight to the case against them.