By Sean Cruz
Portland, Oregon—Sooner or later, the last barge will pass through the series of navigation locks that compartmentalize the Columbia River into a series of stepped slackwater ponds.
The scene will look something like this, much the same as on any other sunny day in the Columbia Gorge, with just a single barge plying its way; in this series, heading upriver towards the Bonneville navigation locks:
In the final analysis, barge traffic will die off for economic reasons, which can largely be explained by the simple fact that the Columbia River is not the Mississippi.
The Columbia lacks significant traffic, far short of what would justify the cost of maintaining the lock infrastructure; and the Mississippi lacks the salmon, which have evolved over thousands of years to thrive in the fast moving environment that preceded the construction of the dams.
The fact is that just about half of the barges that move up and down the river are empty. This one is loaded, but most of the barges that travel upriver are empty.
That tiny speck moving off into the distance is that same lonely barge….
It will pass through the navigation lock at Bonneville Dam, and it will do so for free. It may surprise you to know that there is no cost charged to the barge operators for using the navigation lock.
The Columbia River economy supports only one barge company, an effective monopoly on commercial and industrial traffic along the length of the river, and that company enjoys subsidies that few are probably aware of: free travel through the locks; no charge for lock maintenance; and, probably most significant, a slackwater subsidy that keeps the river at a level that best suits the occasional barge, like this one, to the detriment of the salmon and Celilo Falls, which costs the public tens of millions of dollars a year.
While commercial operators enjoy free use of the entire river, the public is faced with charges at the handful of places where there is public access, like this one:
Ironically, public access to the navigation locks is closed off, an issue of Homeland Security. When I arrived at the security kiosk to visit the Bonneville visitors center, the guard wanted to look into my trunk to see if I was carrying any weapons.
Geez, if I wanted to create a big mess at the dam, I think I’d just take a barge full of fertilizer and diesel fuel up into the lock. That ought to do it.
The Columbia River is not the Mississippi. It is time we recognized that fact.
The Friends of Celilo Falls is forming….