During the last few decades, snow runoffs in the Columbia River basin have typically been trending smaller. But this year is a dramatic exception: A huge snowpack is forcing officials to release vast amounts of water through the river's dams, creating a swift and sometimes perilous ride for the tugboats that push grain barges up...

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ABOARD THE TUG SUNDIAL — The boat crews call it “The Push,” a mile-and-a-half stretch of the Columbia River just below Bonneville Dam where the currents pick up.

This month, with the Columbia at a rare flood stage primed by meltwater from an epic snowpack, the ride downstream is swift and tense for the tug tethered to three enormous barges.

“The stress level is up right now,” said Steve Coles, the tug’s captain. “Everybody is on their A game, and trying to be as cautious as possible to get the job done. … When you got this high water, it’s a whole different river.”

This spring is a dramatic exception from the trends of the last few decades on the Columbia, as snowpacks have generally been smaller and the river much tamer. There are strong eddies and powerful currents that can make it harder to steer.

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The Sundial, which typically travels through the zone below Bonneville at 12 to 14 miles per hour, reached speeds of nearly 17 mph this week. Moving upstream is another matter, with the coursing river water making that slow journey even slower.

The high waters also limit the number of barges each tug can push, hampering the shipment of wheat from grain elevators up river.

The Army Corps of Engineers — and their Canadian counterparts — are spilling water through the dams to free up enough space in upstream reservoirs to handle additional runoff expected in the weeks ahead.

“The one thing our reservoir regulators live in fear of is filling the reservoirs up all the way, and then having to spill everything that comes their way,” said Scott Clemans, an Army Corps of Engineers spokesman. “At that point, they have lost control of the system.”

So this week, about 500,000 cubic feet of water, enough to fill five Olympic swimming pools and about 60 percent above typical spring runoff, is tumbling over Bonneville Dam each second.

This controlled flooding has created plenty of odd sights along the tug’s route. A riverside outhouse is submerged up to its roof. Beaches that by June should be filled with sunbathers have disappeared under water, as have stretches of paved foot trails that border riverfront housing developments.

Earlier this week, an Indian fishing platform above Bonneville tore loose. It ended up jammed against the dam, where it had to be pulled off by a tug.

But for the most part, the water has been kept low enough to prevent any significant shoreside damage.

For Tidewater, the Vancouver-based company that operates the Sundial, the biggest problem with the high water is safety concerns that limit their loads at a time of soaring international demand for the Pacific Northwest wheat stowed in upriver elevators.

Typically, the tug can push four grain barges down river — each holding some 3,000 tons or more of wheat. But while the river is at flood stage, the tug is limited to two or three barges even as ships waiting for that grain stack up in river moorages just off Tidewater’s dock.

“Our customers are tearing their hair out,” said John Pigott, an assistant to the president for Tidewater. “They want more (barges), and they are getting less.”

To move the grain, Coles and three other crew members aboard the Sundial shuttle up and down the river, working six hours, then resting for six hours in a cycle that stretches for 15 days before taking a break.

The 60-year-old Coles’ memories of this river stretch back to his youth, when his family fished commercially along the Columbia. Only in his boyhood, and during a brief winter flood stage in 1996, does he recall high water that resembles this year’s late-spring flows.

Coles works in a wheelhouse perch that rises some 40 feet above the river. Peering through the windshield, he gazes out at the barges — the half-full ethanol barge in the lead with the two grain barges tied side by side, directly in front of the tug. In this configuration, the farthest end of the fuel barge is nearly two football fields’ distance from the wheelhouse.

The high-river challenges include eddies, where the tug must slow its speed to prevent a barge from getting pulled under. The downstream steering can be tricky because the current pushes so much harder.

And at one dam on the Snake River, the currents were so strong that only one barge at a time could be safely guided through the lock.

But the toughest part of the downstream journey came on Tuesday, when the tug crew faced both high water and a nasty squall. Fierce upstream winds whipped the river into 6- to 8-foot waves with spray that struck the windshield of the wheelhouse.

So when the tug stopped at Boardman, Ore., to pick up the third barge with ethanol fuel, Coles opted to lay over for a few hours until the wind eased off.

“It was nasty,” Coles said. “I have seen it where these barges will just break off. I haven’t had any do that, but I have seen it. And you just have to let them go. … You can’t stop them.”

As the light faded Wednesday evening, the tug reached its Vancouver home port. With the high water reducing the air space underneath two bridges, Coles called for lifts, and then a short distance downstream eased the barges to a tie-up spot.

In the middle of the channel, an impressive lineup of seven empty grain ships was at anchor, all waiting to fill up with wheat headed for distant markets.

Coles and his crew spent a few hours dockside, then, once again, they headed up river.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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