Columbia River dam closure sparks PNW barge backlog fears

A critical navigation point in the US internal waterway system is closed for emergency repairs just as this year’s wheat harvest in the Pacific Northwest has hit the market, sparking fears of logistical headaches for exporters in the US’ main wheat exit point.

A lock at the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon states was shut for emergency repairs over the weekend after a crack appeared in its concrete wall.

The lock has been shut to all barge traffic in both directions since, acting as a chokepoint in the arterial route that carries the bulk of the region’s wheat production to export terminals – most of it destined for Asia.

Authorities drained the lock over the weekend and repairs are currently underway, according to a statement on social media from the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Portland District, which is responsible for the repairs.

There was no timeframe given on how long the repairs are expected to take, adding the market’s uncertainty.

“[I] talked to some guys yesterday about it and, so far, it hasn’t backed things up terribly bad,” Adam Knosalla, a broker at Frontier Futures told Agricensus on Tuesday.

“The problem is they don’t really know how long the dam will be closed for repairs and it will begin to back up in a quick hurry if it’s closed for another week or more,” Knosalla said.

Others in the market agreed that the problem, while not acute, remains a poorly timed stumbling block for US exporters in the region, arriving just as this year’s harvest has started to make its way on to the international market.

“It will affect shipments at least to some degree, especially to Asia, and I'd expect to slow down barge movement too,” a trader told Agricensus.

“We have enough wheat to load a few boats, but after that, we're screwed. And so is everyone else … 80% of SWW is brought in by barge,” a second trader added.

Some 12.8 million mt of wheat was exported via the Columbia River during the 2018 calendar year, equivalent to almost 60% of the US’ total wheat exports, according to USDA data.

The US is expected to produce 53.4 million mt of wheat this year, with the USDA forecasting around 26.5 million mt of that is for export.