By Alex Binkley

The delay in opening the St. Lawrence Seaway system this spring because of high water levels in the Great Lakes has generated understandable frustration among shipping lines and their customers. It also presents an opportunity for the waterway to test whether all its upgrades and modifications in recent years have given it the ability to handle a surge in ship traffic that could well happen when it opens. Given a mild winter and Great Lakes ice coverage below 10 per cent in late February, the industry was hoping for a March 20 opening. While the Welland Canal will begin operations March 24, opening of the Montreal-Lake Ontario section has been postponed to April 1. Last year the Welland Canal opened March 22 and the MLO section March 26.

St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp. (SLSMC) and its U.S. counterpart have been under considerable public and probably political pressure to co-operate with efforts to drastically lower Great Lakes water levels from their damaging 2019 levels. There were calls to postpone Seaway operations this year until even later in the season at lower water levels so they didn’t threaten shoreline properties. SLSMC said delaying the opening of the MLO to April 1 will enable the maximum amount of water to be removed from the Great Lakes. After that “there are no appreciable benefits to increasing outflows by delaying the Seaway opening.”

While the delay was a difficult decision, “we maintain that it is the reasonable thing to do under the current circumstances,” SLSMC said. “Some will be of the view that twelve lost days of utilization of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the most environmentally sustainable mode of transportation to the heartland of North America, is twelve days too many.” In addition, delaying the Seaway opening even longer would have had considerable economic consequences in terms of lost revenues and possible job losses. SLSMC pointed out that “The opening of the Welland Canal in advance of the MLO section will benefit shippers and carriers eager to start moving cargo as soon as possible this spring.”

Bruce Hodgson, SLSMC’s Director of Market Development, said the Seaway is well aware of the frustration among its customers. “There will be an outreach closer to the opening when we can get a feeling of what’s coming.” That will enable planning to handle as many ships as possible. “Our challenge will not be a capacity one but a fluidity one,” he said. That involves balancing water outflow and navigation conditions.

Pierre Morin, SLSMC’s Manager of Government and Community Relations, said, “We’ve been moving all we can, but we can’t flood out Lac St. Louis or the Port of Montreal.” The high-water levels combined with strong winds create huge waves which create problems for ships and anything along the shore. This winter’s snow pack in the Great Lakes region is much less than in recent winters and that should help bring the lake levels down in time, he said. In the past hundred years, water levels have risen and fallen gradually, but now the rate of change happens more quickly.

Bruce Burrows, President of the Chamber of Marine Commerce, said the delay is disappointing because as many as 100 ships could have transited during the twelve days of March. “Some cargoes will be lost. Grain exports are ready to go and our food production, steel and manufacturing customers urgently need raw materials as their winter inventories are running out. They cannot afford any further delays that could affect factory operations. Given the current disruption impacting Canada’s national railways, we certainly do not need delays of transportation of critical supplies and products on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway transportation and trade corridor.”

Mike Broad, President of the Shipping Federation of Canada, said the delayed opening “will obviously have an effect on some cargoes and force some exporters to stockpile their shipments. The shipping industry has been working hard to mitigate the risk of flooding on the Seaway and Great Lakes,” he said. “We would always want the Seaway to open earlier.”

Allister Paterson, Executive Vice-President and Chief Commercial Officer of Canada Steamship Lines, said, “Dealing with the high waters and flooding concerns on Lake Ontario will make the season especially challenging. Since last year, we’ve been working with a variety of stakeholders to find ways to navigate without causing harm in the affected areas. For instance, we’ve been navigating at reduced speeds through the Moses-Saunders outflow area because of strong currents, and have voluntarily slowed down on the Lake to reduce wake. We fully expect to be putting in place the same measures this year. In addition, however, this year the season will begin later than usual to allow for even stronger outflows. This means our season will be condensed by a week and we might not be able to move all of the requested customer cargo.”

The Canadian and American Seaway operators worked with the International Lake Ontario St. Lawrence River Board all last season “to grant shoreline communities the greatest possible relief from high water levels,” said Terence Bowles, SLSMC President and CEO. The Board “set water flows at 10,400 cubic meters, which is sufficient to fill four Olympic sized swimming pools per second, for a record setting length of time.” Through this period of turbulent water conditions, the Seaway “was able to safely sustain navigation thanks to the implementation of special mitigation measures, including the imposition of reduced speed limits and the implementation of one-way navigation in certain portions of the river.

Nicole Trépanier, spokeswoman for Federal Navigation, said, “We have had to adjust our loading schedule in foreign ports to eliminate the possibility of arriving at St. Lambert ahead of April 1, otherwise all the waiting time for the Lakes to open would be for our account. We do have a few urgent cargoes for our clients within the Great Lakes system that has forced them to look into either railing or trucking some cargo from U.S. East Coast or St. Lawrence River ports. “As such we are working with our clients to delay their shipping dates, and are slow-steaming for the voyages that our clients cannot change the shipping dates, so that we can save on fuel and avoid waiting time here in the river. “With the late opening, we can definitely expect potential pilotage shortages, as I am quite sure that there will be several ships waiting to get in on April 1st.”

Burrows is trying to convince governments and waterfront property owner groups to participate in discussions on coping with high water levels. What’s needed is “a much broader, holistic resiliency plan that looks at every avenue including flood zoning, shoreline resiliency and infrastructure investments for residents and business owners.

“The marine shipping industry is working with officials across both sides of the border, as well as scientific experts here in Canada to study what improvements can be made that could lead to navigation during increased outflow periods when water is high on Lake Ontario.” SLSMC said that even when the Seaway is fully open, there will be high outflows of water from the Great Lakes and it is taking measures to reduce the risk to ships navigating them. “We have retained the services of a risk management expert to assist in developing strategies to maintain safe navigation under high Lake Ontario outflows. We are confident that both short- and long-term solutions to commercial navigation challenges exist that will enable us to maintain our resiliency and predictability for many years to come.”

One promising possibility is frequent adjustments to the water flows to maintain a steady current to create a more predictable environment to navigate, “even when flows are higher than what was thought possible,” SLSMC said. “With this principle in mind, the potential exists to move more water downstream while, at the same time, safely sustaining commercial navigation.”

As well, SLSMC will provide more information to ships about water currents at precise points in the waterway, which may assist captains to navigate at higher flows. “Through innovation and investment, commercial navigation is now more reliable and predictable than ever,” SLSMC said. “We are continuing to pursue creative solutions to sustain commercial navigation as outflows from Lake Ontario outflows are maximized.”

In all likelihood, the low ice coverage on the Lakes will mean few, if any, complaints about the Canadian and American Coast Guard icebreaking services and the antiquated state of their ships.