Posted January 25, 2012

Navigation in the Lower Snake River

Keith C. Petersen in his book River of Life Channel of Death Fish and Dams on the Lower Snake (reprinted in 1995) describes a vision by some of economic prosperity that would befall Lewiston after the lower Snake River became navigable.

From page 148: Still, things have not turned out exactly as Herbert West and the dam proponents envisioned. For a hundred years visionaries predicted an economic boon of seismic proportions once Lewiston became a seaport – more jobs, more workers, larger payrolls, new businesses, more services, a higher standard of living. The Corps of Engineers did its best to encourage that euphoric thinking. In the mid-1970s, as it pressed to complete Lower Granite amidst rising concern about that dam, its glossy publications spoke of “significant industrial growth,” “far-reaching ramifications [on] . . . the economy,” “a large quantity of newcomers” to the Lewiston Valley. But the bonanza never came. There has been some economic growth; some new development at the valley ports of Wilma, Clarkston, and Lewiston. And the local chambers of commerce will tell you the cities are better off than before slackwater. But there has been no economic or population growth on a scale developers had promised. Admitted Port of Lewiston manager Dale Alldredge in the late 1980s, “The arrival of slackwater by itself didn’t turn us into the economic mecca that was foreseen when the whole system was designed.”

Petersen’s historical account of the evolution of the lower Snake dams points to navigation as the driver for congressional authorization of the four projects in 1945. When it was time for congress to appropriate funds to build the dams beginning in the 1950s, the Northwest was awash in hydropower. Since the benefits of navigation were not enough to overcome the costs, the proponents got creative using energy to balance the cost/benefit equation. They were able to tie construction of Ice Harbor Dam, the first dam on the lower Snake to the nearby Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The claim was that during cold war times the energy from Ice Harbor could be needed at Hanford. That was enough for Senator Warren Magnuson from Washington State to push through a $ 1 million appropriation to begin Ice Harbor construction in 1956. Petersen maintains that without Magnuson’s political muscle the dams would not stand today.

Total Tonnage

Since the mid-1990s Lower Snake River navigation tonnage continues to decline.



The Port of Lewiston is the only port in the lower Snake that loads and unloads containers from barges. Containers are an important economic component of the Port’s Intermodal [water, road, rail, air] mission. Pulse [dry beans, peas, lentils], paper, lumber and grains are shipped in containers.

Recessionary times have influenced the economy of transportation but there are other issues working against container shipping from the lower Snake River.

David Doeringsfeld, Lewiston’s Port Manager, told the Lewiston Port Commissioners on January 4, 2012 that the 14-week lock outage at the beginning of 2011 contributed to decreases in container movement in 2011 but disparities in steamship pricing for oversees shipping rates from the Port of Portland versus Puget Sound are at work. Moving containers to the Seattle area involve truck and rail.


Bulk wheat shipments have also seen a similar trend.

Rail Improvements at the Port of Lewiston

Encouraging activity at the Port of Lewiston are the plans for rail. Improvements to the entrance of the container yard and expansion to handle 52-car unit trains at the North Port site are being planned. The Port recognizes rail transportation is necessary to be competitive as an intermodal distribution center.

Lewiston Tribune Story

Shipping blues

Port of Lewiston struggles with falling revenue as external factors trigger a reduction in overall container shipping

Posted: Sunday, January 22, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 11:31 pm, Sat Jan 21, 2012.

By ELAINE WILLIAMS of the Tribune

Container volume at the Port of Lewiston fell below the break-even mark in 2011 and this year might be just as slow.

The port handled 3,653 containers of paper products as well as dried peas, garbanzo beans, lentils and wheat in the most recent calendar year. It averaged 304 containers a month, compared with the 400 containers a month needed to generate sufficient revenue to cover expenses, said port Manager David Doeringsfeld.

Other services the container yard offers, such as container repair for shipping lines and container inspection for steamship lines or shippers, covers the revenue gap, Doeringsfeld said.

The numbers were somewhat better in 2009 and 2010, with monthly averages of containers running at 393 and 338, respectively.

Volume could increase this year, but there are no guarantees. Two things working in the port's favor are an improving economy and more weeks the Snake and Columbia river system will be open to barges, Doeringsfeld said.

In 2011, the river system was closed for three months so the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could refurbish the locks at three of the dams between Lewiston and Portland. This year, barge traffic will be suspended for about three weeks, the length of time needed for regular annual maintenance.

At the same time, Doeringsfeld said he plans to visit the Port of Portland and his customers to see if his staff can make any changes to improve service. "The port doesn't want to see the numbers go lower," Doeringsfeld said. "It has to turn around."

Factors hurting the Port of Lewiston are circumstances it can't control, said Bill Newbry, general manager of the Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative in Genesee. "The Port of Lewiston is well run. They have a good rapport with the shippers. The service is excellent." The cargo that leaves from the Port of Lewiston is transferred to ocean-going ships at the Port of Portland. Often the rates to send freight through Puget Sound ports are less expensive, even though the over-the-road costs are higher, Newbry said.

A big reason is how the ports are situated. Steamship lines pay one business to provide a pilot to get them across the bar of the Columbia River and another for a pilot that guides them along the river until they reach Portland, said Josh Thomas, a spokesman for the Port of Portland.

The pilots reach the ships by helicopter or boat, meet the captains on the bridges of their ships and take control of the vessels until they arrive in Portland, Thomas said.

Not counting the journey across the bar, it takes about six hours to get to Portland.

The trek from the Pacific Ocean also involves costs for more fuel and extra time of regular crew members, Newbry said. "It's less expensive for them to go to the Port of Tacoma and the Port of Seattle. They can go right up to the curb and park. "

Even if prices weren't a factor, Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative has had increasing difficulty with the destinations of the steamship lines that call on the Port of Portland, Newbry said. A lot of times the steamships simply don't have routes that take them to customers of Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative, Newbry said.

In spite of that, Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative would like to use the Port of Lewiston more. It can pack containers for the port at its own sites, Newbry said.

A third party handles that task when the agricultural commodities move through Tacoma or Seattle, Newbry said. "We look at it as tamper proof. We've loaded the container. We've put the seal on the container. We know exactly what's in the container."

Whether Pacific Farmers Cooperative starts sending more of its products through the Port of Lewiston will probably depend on what happens in Portland.

The trends for outbound containers in Portland are similar to those in Lewiston.

The Port of Portland handled about 100,000 containers in the last three years, compared with more than 200,000 in each of the six consecutive years, starting in 1999.

One improvement for exporters this year will be the expansion of service from one of the carriers, Hapag-Lloyd, which is going from arriving every 11 days to every seven days and adding destinations such as Northern Africa, Thomas said.

Even though no easy fixes appear to be on the horizon, Doeringsfeld dismisses the idea that it might be time to discuss discontinuing the container yard at the Port of Lewiston. "We're nowhere near that point."

Williams may be contacted at or (208) 848-2261.


It is timely for the Port to move forward on its Strategic Plan objective of rail expansion to handle 52-car unit trains at its Northport site. As identified in the Plan - rail transportation is necessary to be competitive as an intermodal distribution center.

Bert Bowler

Snake River Salmon Solutions


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