Informational Facts

Columbia Snake River Navigation System Fact Pack & Fact Sheet

Columbia Snake River Navigation System Fact Pack & Fact Sheet

  • The Columbia-Snake River System is part of a national transportation system. It provides both economic and environmental benefits.
  • A 40-foot deep river channel for ocean-going vessels extends 106 miles from the ocean to Portland and Vancouver, Washington. The 1997 waterborne cargo value totaled $13.1 billion.
  • 3% of all U.S. wheat exports are shipped on the Columbia River.
  • 11% of all U.S.corn exports are shipped on the Columbia River. A 14-foot shallow-draft channel extends 359 miles from Vancouver to Lewiston, Idaho, accommodating tugs, barges, and log rafts, worth $2.2 billion.
  • Columbia-Snake River barge shippers save $38 million annually over the cost of transporting their cargoes by either rail or truck.
  • An additional 120,000 rail cars or 700,000 semi-trucks would be needed annually if barge navigation were stopped.
  • Navigation is fuel-efficient. A ton of commodity goods can move 524 miles by barge on one gallon of fuel, compared to 202 miles by rail and 59 miles by truck.
  • Navigation is the cleanest mode of transportation, with 1/4 to 1/3 the emissions of rail and 1/20 to 1/9 the emissions of trucking, per ton-mile.
  • The impact on the Portland metro area includes 49,900 jobs; $723 million in revenues; and $48 million in taxes.
  • One of many examples of impacts on smaller areas would be Lewiston/Clarkston with water-related benefits that include 1,580 jobs and $35.6 million in revenues.
  • The Columbia/Snake River System is a unified transportation system with 36 deep and shallow water ports.

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Navigation and Trade

The Columbia Snake River System is a unified transportation network providing local and national benefits. Combined, the 18 deep-water and barge-channel ports that handle marine commerce serve over 40 states.

  • In 2002, the lower Columbia River handled 39% of all U.S. wheat exports, 4% of the corn exports and 6% of the soybean exports.
  • The lower Columbia River is the country’s largest wheat gateway and the third largest grain corridor in the world, handling nearly 10 million tons of wheat alone in 2002.
  • Approximately 91% of the 4.8 million tons of wheat that were shipped by barge in 2001 began the trip above McNary Dam.

Export products are funneled from the Midwest and Pacific Northwest into Lewiston, at the headwaters of the navigation system, to the export terminals on the lower Columbia River.

  • Approximately a quarter of Portland’s export container cargo currently arrives by barge for transloading onto ocean-going ships. The commodity mix is: hay and hay products (32%); milk carton stock and other paper (20%); frozen potatoes (13%); peas, beans & lentils (13%); animal feed (4%); and other goods (7%).
  • In 2002, an estimated $47 million worth of potato products—primarily in the form of frozen french fries—were exported from Oregon, Idaho, and Washington through Portland via the Columbia Snake transportation system.
  • “Other” containerized cargoes range from forest products (e.g., fiberboard, pine lumber) and farm crops (e.g., onions, sweet corn) to manufactured goods (e.g., electronic components, machinery)

The Tri-Cities/Boardman/Umatilla area serves as a second inland hub.

  • Many southern Idaho shippers truck containers to these ports on the John Day and McNary pools, for transloading onto river barges destined for Portland.
  • Barging is the least-cost mode of inland transportation, often saving shippers 25% or more vs. using truck or train.

2001 Columbia Snake River System cargo volumes (Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Waterborne Commerce of the U.S.):

  • Deep Draft Channel—38 million tons total; 15 million tons grain, 3 million tons forest products.
  • Columbia River Barge Channel—12 million tons total; 5 million tons grain, 1 million tons forest products.
  • Snake River Barge Channel—5.6 million tons total; 3.6 million tons grain, 200,000 tons forest products.

The lower Snake River is necessary to make the economics and operation of the rest of the system work.

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Economic Value of Navigation

2002 waterborne cargo value:

  • Approximately $14 billion total for river system (Source: U.S. Dept. of Commerce).
  • Estimated $1.5 billion for barge channel portion (Source: Pacific Northwest Waterways Association).

Maritime Economic Impacts:

  • Value of Columbia-Snake River navigation system transportation costs on an annual basis are estimated to be $414 million (Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).
  • Lower Columbia River seaport-related activities:
    • 40,000 dependent jobs (direct, indirect and induced),
    • $1.5 billion in business sales related to water transportation (direct and indirect).
    • $208 million paid in state and local taxes.
  • Lewiston/Clarkston area water-related activities:
    • 1,580 jobs influenced, directly and indirectly.
    • $35.6 million earned in employee wages.
    • $97 million in business sales related to water transportation (direct and indirect)
  • Columbia Basin area water-related activities:
    • No formal economic impact studies available.
    • A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report estimated 540 jobs, creating $16 million in employment earnings, are attributable to mid-Columbia River navigation activities (John Day and NcNary pools).
    • Largest three companies using mid-Columbia portion of river system ship an estimated $95 million in containerized product annually to Portland for export.

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How Navigation is Funded

Navigation channels:

  • Deep draft O&M: 100% funded by user fees.
  • Deep Draft Construction: Approx. 35% funded by local sponsor, 65% federal.
  • Barge Channel O&M: 100% federal appropriations.
  • Barge Channel Construction: Approx. 50% funded by user fees, 50% federal.
  • Federal navigation trust funds (Fiscal Year 2002):
  • Deep draft has $1.9 billion surplus.
  • Barge channel has $410 million surplus.

Port facilities: combination of local port and private sector funding

  • Local port funding: revenue from users and/or local taxes, depending on the port.
  • Port access: combination of federal, local, port and private funding.
  • Tugs, barges, steamships: private sector funded.

Ports also generate revenue and taxes:

  • From port operations.
  • From business activity on port property.
  • From taxes paid by port tenants and port users

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Environmental Benefits of Navigation

Fuel efficiency: barge vs. rail truck (Source: S.E. Eastman, “Fuel Efficiency in Freight Transportation”)

  • A ton of commodity can be moved 514 miles on one gallon of fuel on a loaded barge.
  • A ton of commodity can be moved 202 miles on one gallon of fuel on a loaded train.
  • A ton of commodity can be moved 59 miles on one gallon of fuel on a loaded truck.

Emissions efficiencies of barging (Source: U.S Environmental Protection Agency)

  • Hydrocarbon emissions: navigation is 20 percent of rail and 14 percent of truck.
  • Carbon monoxide emissions: navigation is 31 percent of rail and 11 percent of truck.
  • Nitrous oxide emissions: navigation is 29 percent of rail and 5 percent of truck.

If barge navigation were halted, an additional 120,000 rail cars would be required annually, or an equivalent of 700,000 semi trucks, greatly increasing highway congestion, traffic backups at railroad crossings and the need to build expensive new road and rail infrastructure.

It would take an additional 192,000 semi-trucks or 48,000 more railcars to handle just the wheat that is now carried on barges if barging were discontinued above McNary Dam.

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Other Benefits of Columbia Snake River Dams

Power Generation

  • Approximately 75 percent of the Pacific Northwest’s electricity is provided by Columbia River and the Snake River dams.
  • Hydropower is renewable, plentiful and non-polluting. Compare to fossil fuels and nuclear energy as next best alternatives for large-scale energy production.
  • Hydropower revenues support fish, wildlife and other social programs, and help reimburse nuclear plant debts.

Flood Protection

  • While providing a high level of flood prevention, current system of dams can only store 20 percent of Columbia Snake system’s annual 198 million acre feet of runoff.
  • Under certain high water conditions, water levels in back of the four lower Snake River dams can be lowered below Minimum Operating Pool to help prevent catastrophic flooding and soil erosion, although these dams are not designed for flood control purposes.
  • During the February 1996 flood, John Day reservior was used to hold back about 70,000 cubic feet of water per second, which kept Portland’s river levels down by 1 to 1.5 feet.

Farmland Irrigation

  • About half of the 7.3 million acres of income-producing farmland and ranches in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon are irrigated with water from the Columbia Snake.
  • Sales from these farms and livestock ranches exceed $10 billion annually.
  • Loss of the lower Snake River dams would push electric rates higher and reduce the economic viability of irrigated agriculture.

Recreational Opportunities

  • River-related recreational activities created by the dams’ reservoirs add hundreds of millions of dollars to the region’s economy each year.
  • Boating, water-skiing, fishing, swimming, camping and picnicking are just some of the recreational pursuits.

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Fact Sheet – PDF

Click here to download a pdf of the fact sheet on the Columbia Snake River System.

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Drawdown Information – PDF

Click here to download a pdf with information on “Dam Breaching and Drawdowns Are Not the Answer.”

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