Flood fears may delay St. Lawrence shipping season

LAWRENCE SEAWAY – Fears of a spring of historic flooding along the Great Lakes have raised the possibility of delaying the start of the 2020 St. Lawrence Seaway season.

Fears of potentially historic flooding on Lake Ontario fed by a high spring freshet in coming months may lead to an unprecedented delayed opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway maritime insiders told The Intelligencer Tuesday.

The delayed start would allow lake regulators time to open the Moses-Saunders Dam wider, longer to release greater amounts of high water to lower lake levels and possibly avoid millions of dollars in shoreline property damage.

Delaying the seaway opening from roughly March 20 until well into April would be a first in the history of the world’s longest such maritime system built in 1959 as a joint international project by Canada and the United States.

The seaway runs from Montreal to Lake Erie and includes two U.S. locks and 13 Canadian locks through which 40 million tonnes of goods pass on large cargo ships in and out of the lakes every year.

Lake levels at the end of February are 19 inches higher than seasonal norms with waterfront property owners fearing the current high-water mark could climb even higher this spring leaving homeowners and businesses flooded.

The International Joint Commission (IJC) charged with maintaining water levels under Plan 2014 is considering a delay in the shipping season in concert with the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation which oversees 40 million tonnes of shipping through the seaway corridor into Lake Erie.

Officials from the IJC and the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board (ILOSRB) declined comment until a firm decision on any delay is announced.

Bruce Burrows, president and CEO of the Chamber of Marine Commerce, said shipping firm executives, MPs and senators met in Ottawa Tuesday, Feb. 25.

High-water levels dominated discussion, including the possible delay of the seaway opening which would cost the shipping industry up to an estimated $250 million a week when the seaway locks are closed due to strong currents caused by the release of so much lake water downstream, he said.

Burrows said the data the chamber has on hand suggests opening Moses-Saunders Dam to higher outflows would see a minimal drop in lake levels of two or three centimetres and is not enough of a benefit to delay shipping. Any drop in water levels in Lake Ontario would be replaced with high water escaping downstream from Lake Erie which is also well above seasonal levels, he said.

By opening up the floodgates at Moses-Saunders Dam at Cornwall to allow more high water to escape downstream, Burrows said lake freighters simply can’t navigate safely through strong currents.

He said the marine chamber of commerce – which represents more than 130 marine industry stakeholders — acknowledges high water levels have hurt shoreline property owners but Burrows argued keeping the seaway closed until April would also hurt Canada’s reputation as a place to do business.

Burrows said given delays in shipping in the 2019 season, there is a backlog of 100 ships waiting to move up the system with goods.

Any further delays will impact “farmers, steel and manufacturing employees, miners and construction workers and the myriad of others whose livelihoods depend on the cargo carried on the waterway,” the marine chamber of commerce said.

Allister Paterson, chair of the Chamber of Marine Commerce and chief commercial officer of ship operator CSL Group, said in a statement high lake levels will not be solved solely by opening up the Moses-Saunders Dam to allow more lake water to escape.

“The dam is a very limited tool that does not solve this problem. And yet, the seaway has been at risk of shut down for months and months,” he said. “We need to work together to develop a much broader, holistic resiliency plan that looks at every avenue including flood zoning, shoreline resiliency and infrastructure investments for residents and business owners.”

  • With files from the Belleville Intelligencer