Lower Snake River commerce hits all-time low

By Linwood Laughy, IRU Member

Photo courtesy the Port of Lewiston

Wild salmon and steelhead may not be the only endangered species on the lower Snake River.

Barges no longer transport logs, lumber, pulp, paper, pulse or petroleum through the four dams on the lower Snake. Over the past 20 years even grain volume has declined by more than 40 percent, and in 2017 container-on-barge shipping completed its 15-year decline to zero.

Two related trend lines show strong increases: the taxpayer subsidy for barging and the electricity ratepayer cost for failing salmon and steelhead recovery efforts.

Here’s a closer look at 2017 freight transportation on the lower Snake.

Freight Volume

In his Sept. 2015 lower Snake River navigation study economist Anthony Jones of Rocky Mountain Econometrics forecast the long-term freight volume on the Lower Snake River to be around 2.7 million tons. Volume in 2014 was 2.84 million tons, followed in 2015 with 2.27, then 2.65 in 2016, and in 2017 a total of 2.79 million tons.  The average for the four years is 2.64 million tons. Jones’ 2.7 million tons estimate represents a solid figure for use in future discussions of annual freight volume on the lower Snake River.

For a longer-term perspective, consider that in 1998 lower Snake River freight volume was 9.14 million tons. The average volume over the past four years represents a decline of 71 percent. Today grain makes up about 90 percent of all lower Snake River waterborne freight. Most other shippers have abandoned the river.

The special interest groups supporting the status quo on the lower Snake River continue to misinform the public about freight volume. They do so by including in total shipping volume the petroleum that is barged 2 miles up the Snake River to a tank farm at the Port of Pasco. Ice Harbor Dam, the first of the four dams on the Snake, stands 9 miles upstream of the river’s mouth. None of the petroleum travels through any lower Snake River locks or on any of the reservoirs created by these dams.

Container Traffic

In 2000 the Port of Lewiston, the only port on the lower Snake River that handled containers, shipped 17,590 TEUs (20-foot equivalent units, or half of a typical 40 foot container). By 2013 container volume had declined to 4,439 TEUs . That is the same year year Port of Lewiston extended its container dock at a cost of 2.8 million taxpayer dollars. The port shipped zero containers in 2017. 

The Port of Portland is attempting to bring container shipping back to Pier 6, its container dock, principally for the benefit of Oregon shippers. The state of Oregon is temporarily subsidizing the operation, which consists of a single ship calling on Port of Portland approximately every 35 days. The principal export cargo will be Daimler trucks manufactured in Portland and shipped to Australia, along with an estimated 100 to 200 containers—or about 1,000 to 2,000 containers per year. The ship will complete its run by traveling to Asia, where it will pick up import containers and return to the Port of Portland. Hanjin, the last container shipper to pull out of the Port of Portland in 2015, made a call every week and handled over 40,000 containers per year. The ports of Seattle and Tacoma annually handle over 1.8 million containers. 

It costs the Port of Portland about $3 million annually to maintain Pier 6. The port’s new executive director told the media the container operation must break even financially or it will cease to exist. The Port of Portland previously operated Pier 6 for 40 years, was profitable during only two of those years, and during the port’s last year of operating Pier 6 the port lost $19 million. None of the news reports on this story have made any reference to renewing container shipping on the lower Snake River. 

Port of Lewiston

According to a recent story in the Lewiston Morning Tribune, the Port of Lewiston continues to lose money in its operations.  Fiscal year 2017’s operating loss is $134,220. Losses in previous years from annual audits are as follows:

FY2013     $92,435; 
FY2014     $445.497; 
FY2015     $401,917
FY2016    $501,234. 
FY2017    $134,220

Total         $1,575,303        

The Port of Lewiston hasn’t experienced a fiscal year of black ink since 2012 when the port had positive earnings from renting space to Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil so the corporation could cut up 33 megaloads held at the port for 13 months by citizen activism and legal challenges. Port of Lewiston's operating losses come in spite of annual income that includes more than $400,000 in Nez Perce County property taxes, more than $100,000 from the redistribution of state sales taxes (since the port is legally a municipal government), and rents from the port’s extensive real estate holdings purchased by taxpayers over the years. 

The Port of Lewiston is finally getting a small amount of business over its new container dock. Clearwater Paper is now unloading a limited number of barges of sawdust and wood chips at the port. A privately-owned local company formerly handled these shipments 4 miles downstream at the Port of Wilma. This is an example of a tax-supported government agency taking business away from private enterprise.

In an August 2017 interview with Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman as part of its series on Snake River salmon, Port Manager David Doeringsfeld told Barker “With the return of container steamship service in Portland and transport of oversized cargo on U.S. Highway 12, I believe shipping volumes will grow.”  The return of container service to Lewiston appears a pipe dream.  The settlement of a lawsuit on the use of Highway 12 through the Clearwater and Lochsa Wild and Scenic River corridors in January 2017 resulted in the U. S. Forest Service ruling out megaload traffic through the 100-mile long scenic river corridor. Any failure of the USFS to enforce that position will almost surely land the matter back in federal court. 

Through November 2017, the POL had handled 19 barges this year, or one barge about every 18 days. Lewis-Clark Terminal, a privately held corporation, ships all grain leaving Lewiston from its own property over its own docks. Thus the Corps of Engineers’ $11+ million dredging project at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers and up the Clearwater in early 2015 principally benefited a single private corporation. This dredging project, all paid for with taxpayer funds, followed the completion in 2014 of the Corps’ $13 million taxpayer funded sediment management plan for the area. 

On the subject of sediment: we can be confident that in 2017 at least another 2.2 million cubic yards of sediment arrived at the Snake/Clearwater confluence, or an even greater amount following the extensive wildfires in north central Idaho in 2015 and 2016.  The Corps projects that dredging of the navigational channel at Lewiston needs to occur every 3-5 years, with 2018 year 4. In the past the Corps has stretched this time frame by raising the Lower Granite reservoir above minimum operating pool, exposing an expanded reservoir surface to greater solar radiation with resulting increases in water temperatures and salmon and steelhead losses. 

One ever-so-small positive note: the POL spent $59,000 in FY2017 on rail repairs, up from a planned expenditure of $6000.