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Michaela Goetz (17 months) waiting for a combine ride with her dad, Nick, at Kunz Farms in Davenport.
Photo by Natasha Goetz





Going with the flow

Treaty's results have steered development of navigation, transportation industries

July 2018
By Trista Crossley

It’s accepted wisdom that rivers shape the landscape, but in the case of the Columbia River, that landscape includes more than just rock and dirt. It has also shaped the commercial and urban environment that has grown up around it. This is especially true for the navigation and transportation industries.

For more than 50 years, the Columbia River Treaty (CRT) between the U.S. and Canada has regulated the river’s flow by storing water behind Canadian dams in the spring as the snow melts and releasing that stored water in the fall when the river level tends to drop. That regulated flow has given the river system some predictability that it otherwise wouldn’t have, reduced flooding and allowed both nations to maximize hydropower production. The treaty has also allowed the navigation and transportation industries to develop their business infrastructure to take advantage of a more predictable river system.

“There’s very close cooperation going on between federal agencies here and their counterparts in Canada to work together to govern water flows,” explained Heather Stebbings, government relations director for the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA). PNWA is a nonprofit trade association that advocates for and supports federal policies and funding for regional economic development on Pacific Northwest waterways, including the Columbia River. “It’s essentially how water is being distributed between pools, and how much flow is coming out of the dams for how long. That helps determine the timing and amount of water coming down the river as well as how fast and how long.”

Under the provisions of the treaty, either country can terminate it any time on or after September 2024 with 10 years’ advance notice. In December 2013, a regional recommendation was sent to the U.S. Department of State that said the Pacific Northwest and the U.S. would benefit from modernizing the treaty after 2024. Four years later, in December 2017, the State Department announced they would begin negotiations to modernize it. Led by Jill Smail, the lead negotiator for the U.S., renegotiation talks began last month.

According to Stebbings, the navigation and transportation industries are comfortable with how the river is currently being managed for flood control and would prefer to see very few changes in the way water is stored and released.

“In terms of how the river is operated, navigation has grown up around the current approach to flows. When you think about navigation and cargo movement, the way the river has been operated has been manageable for our industry,” she said.

One of the major concerns of the navigation and transportation industries is what could happen after 2024 if renegotiations are unsuccessful. In that case, water storage and release relies on the U.S. “calling upon” Canada to help with regulating water flows. As Stebbings explained, nobody really knows what that means in practical terms, how it would work, and how much it would cost.

“There’s no agreement in place as to how to do that,” she said.

Without the water flow regulation the treaty provides, the river system would likely see higher high flows and lower low flows, not to mention an increased potential for flooding. During the high flows, the increased volume of water could impact ship handling and require transportation companies, such as barges, to reduce the amount of goods they can safely move on the river. Higher flows also increase the amount of sedimentation that moves through the river system, creating higher maintenance costs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), which is tasked with keeping the lower river channel dredged to accommodate deep-draft vessels. Lower flows can reduce the amount of goods that can be moved because ocean-going vessels are contracted to load to a certain depth. As the water levels fall (or the sedimentation level rises) ships have to ride higher in the water—often by loading less cargo—in order not to hit the river bottom. Known as draft restrictions, these limits cost shippers money and negatively impact the Pacific Northwest ports’ perceived reliability.

And shipping on the Columbia River is a big deal. According to PNWA, more than 50 million tons of international trade was moved on the lower river system in 2016, worth at least $24 billion and providing approximately 40,000 jobs. On the upper river, including the Snake River, 9 million tons of commercial cargo was moved in 2014. The Columbia-Snake River System is:

• The nation’s single largest wheat export gateway, transporting more than 50 percent of all U.S. wheat to markets overseas. Eleven states export through the river system, which moved more than 12 million tons of wheat in 2016.

• Second in the nation for soy exports, with more than 9 million tons transported in 2016. This represents 25 percent of all U.S. soybean exports. The majority of this product originates in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas and Missouri and is moved to the Columbia River by rail for its trip downriver to the ports.

• No. 1 in exporting wood products on the West Coast. In 2016, 2.7 million tons of logs were exported, primarily out of Longview, Wash., and destined for China. Wood products are also a major commodity on the inland barging system. Each year, around 250,000 tons of wood chips are barged from Lewiston, Idaho, and turned into pulp for paper production at mills on the lower Columbia River.

• The second largest corn gateway in the U.S. with 23 percent of total exports. In 2016, 9.2 million tons of corn, mostly from farms in the Midwest, was delivered via rail to facilities on the lower Columbia River for export overseas.

Growing up together

Watch the inland Columbia River for any length of time, and you are bound to see at least one set of barges being towed up or down the river. Barges are one of the primary means of moving bulk products from the Snake River inland ports in Lewiston, Idaho, down to the Columbia River deep-water ports in Vancouver and Portland.

Rob Rich, vice president of marine services for Shaver Transportation, said across the shipping industry, everything from the size of a typical barge tow (four barges per tow) to the construction, design and capacity of the barges themselves has evolved to take advantage of the relatively stable flows afforded by the CRT. Even the tugboats have been designed with enough horsepower to move four barges at a time in normal flows.

“Because of the way the river is managed, barge tows can be maximized in tonnage to completely utilize the length and width of the navigation locks. The more you can move at one time, the more economical it is,” Rich said, adding that in times of high flows, tug captains often have to reduce the number of barges per tow because high flows make safely departing the navigation locks difficult. “Companies would have to move fewer barges.”

Moving goods by barge is largely considered to be one of the most economical, environmentally friendly means of transportation. One four-barge tow can move more than a 100-car unit train and takes more than 500 semi-trucks off the roads.

There are some groups advocating for language in the CRT that would return seasonal high and low flows on the river, including possible seasonal flooding. Rich pointed out that many of those people have probably never lived through a Columbia River flood. He had one word for them: Vanport.

In May of 1948, two major rainstorms, combined with heavy snow melt from unusually warm temperatures, created record high water levels along the Columbia River. The high water broke through a dike and decimated Vanport, Ore., which was located just outside Portland. More than 18,000 people were left homeless. Part of the reason the CRT was negotiated was to stop flooding on the lower river by building water storage behind Canadian dams. “What they aren’t taking into account is all of the development that has occurred, commercial, residential and federal, along the river, specifically below Bonneville Dam, that would be utterly devastated by flooding in the lower river,” Rich said. “Without the treaty, there would be significant, economically detrimental flooding each year. We would have a more significantly unpredictable river.”

The middle man

Another major user of the Columbia River system sits right at the intersection of the products being shipped down the upper river to the goods being exported overseas from the lower river. The ports play a major economic role in the region, with just one port, the Port of Vancouver USA, having an annual economical benefit of nearly $3 billion in 2014 and providing about 20,000 direct and indirect jobs.

“The Columbia River is the lifeblood of our regional economy,” said Ryan Hart, chief external affairs officer for the Port of Vancouver. “The Port of Vancouver exports about 10 percent of the nation’s wheat. We also have corn and soy moving across our docks. We want to make sure that the navigation piece (of the CRT) is maintained and preserved so that our barges can move upriver past the Port of Vancouver, and ocean-going vessels can move up to the Port of Vancouver. (The treaty is) important to the whole supply chain and is critical to being able to export agriculture products.”

In 2010, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished deepening the lower Columbia River channel to 43 feet, which allows large, ocean-going ships access to the ports. Ongoing maintenance is required to keep the depth at 43 feet, especially as higher flows move more sediment down the river. The channel deepening project has helped make the Columbia River ports more competitive on the world market, said Abbi Russell, communications manager at the Port of Vancouver.

“The channel is an asset like any other infrastructure that we have in the Pacific Northwest,” she said. “Having a 43-foot navigable channel allows us to be more competitive not only at the Port of Vancouver, but regionally and nationally because we can support that demand for larger ships. That’s the way the market has been going for a long time.”

In fact, Hart explained that in the past few years, the Port of Vancouver has seen fewer vessel calls but the tonnage has gone up to record amounts. Without the modulation of the water flows the CRT provides, he is doubtful the river would be as navigable as it is.

“I think you’d see more ports as business parks and industrial facilities, rather than marine ports that have ocean-going vessels calling on them. Our ability to export ag products and other goods would be severely hampered on the Columbia River,” he added.

Completing the picture

Captain Paul Amos of the Columbia River Pilots knows first hand how dangerous unpredictable flows on the Columbia River can be. Amos is part of a group that is responsible for navigating ocean-going vessels up the river from Astoria, Ore., to Portland and the ports in between.

River pilots have to know where the shoals (areas where sediment is deposited) are. They have to understand the effects between the ship and the banks and other ships they pass. Pilots are often navigating 750-foot long vessels along a 600-foot wide channel with only a few feet of draft underneath them. River pilots are required to become tugboat masters first, and most have more than 10 years of experience navigating the river before becoming a river pilot.

“The higher the flow in the river, the higher the velocity, the more difficult a ship can be to handle. When we get real low flows, a ship handles entirely differently. We learn the river with the kind of current flow regiments that are currently in place. It (the CRT) has shaped the environment from it’s inception,” Amos said, pointing out that all the infrastructure along the river, from the ports, to bridges to piers, has been built to work with the current river level and flows. “It is critical for us that a new treaty maintains that management level or something pretty close to it.”

For more information on the Columbia River Treaty, visit the State Department's website. Archived info is available here.