PORTLAND, Ore. -- A critical navigation lock at the mighty Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River has shut down because of cracked concrete, meaning huge barges that transport millions of tons of wheat, wood and other goods from the inland Pacific Northwest to the Pacific Ocean for export are at a standstill.
The closure comes at the peak of wheat harvest and could be devastating for farmers who ship to Asia via barges that fill up at more than two dozen grain elevators along the river network as far inland as Lewiston, Idaho.
Many of those barges are now stranded above the dam, unable to reach deep water export terminals on the Pacific Ocean.
"All the growers have done their part, they've raised high quality wheat and they want to get it out to feed the world," said Kristin Meira, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.
The crack in the concrete sill was discovered late last week and the lock was drained of all water over the weekend. On Monday, crews were working to demolish the faulty concrete section so repairs could begin, said Chris Gaylord, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Portland, Oregon.
It was unclear when the repairs would be done.
"We're trying to be really, really transparent and feed people updates as quickly as possible," he said. "We've been getting work done out there as quickly as possible."
It's not known what caused the damage; the locks are maintained annually.
The damage means that barges headed upstream can't travel the Columbia River past the Bonneville Dam and those headed downriver toward the Pacific Ocean are stuck behind the Bonneville -- effectively putting a chokehold on all river commerce in a huge swath of the Pacific Northwest from eastern Oregon and Washington to Idaho.