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Canadian Shippers Also Struggling with Low Water Levels

A major northeastern Canadian and U.S. shipping route is experiencing low water levels. Not quite as severe as parts of the Mississippi River, but agricultural products originating from the Great Lake ports on both Canada and the U.S. side represent about 40 percent of the St. Lawrence Seaway trade.

The St. Lawrence River is the final leg of the Great Lakes shipping system, linking Lake Ontario with the Atlantic Ocean. Grains and oilseeds shipped on the St. Lawrence go primarily for overseas export, and cargo volumes include corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, oats, and flaxseed.

St. Lawrence River levels have declined over the past few months and forecasts by the Canadian Coast Guard call for further declines. Smaller, lighter loads that allow ships to ride higher in the water have increased storage demand, resulting in higher rates at all ports along the St. Lawrence Seaway. One of those is the Port of Hamilton on Lake Ontario, between Toronto and Niagara Falls.  

Jeff Barlow, a grain farmer near Hamilton, says many grain export buyers in his area are not currently bidding for corn due to a lack of elevator storage and freighter space. Barlow, who sits on the Grain Farmers of Ontario executive board, thinks that he’ll have to sit on most of his crop through the winter.

“If you had corn or beans to move right now in the Hamilton area, with 3 major exporters, Parish and Heimbecker, G-3, and Richardson’s all with no bid for corn, and local elevators that rely on taking their grain into the port to get exported, they’re backed up. I’m worried, I kind of rely on ports. We’re in Ontario, right? We produce more grain than we can use here. Especially corn, we export it. I think this stuff’s going to have to wait until spring.”

Ontario’s corn yields were, at best, average this year. But the mild, dry fall weather saw a lot of acres come off very quickly. Jeff Barlow says that Ontario corn is mostly exported, so much of it is now just sitting and waiting to find a home.

“Everybody got everything off really quickly, yields were decent, they weren’t record-breaking, but everybody just had all this stuff to move. And we’re a just-in-time area because we kind of rely on these 3 major exporters in our area that buy and sell grain.”

U.S. and Canadian officials are considering boosting water flow on the eastern end of Lake Ontario to improve conditions for commercial ship traffic on the St. Lawrence Seaway.

But in the meantime, Jeff Barlow says some companies in his area hope to move some crop across the border, something he hasn’t done lately because of the much higher U.S. dollar exchange in recent years.

“It’s been five years since we moved anything across the border, mostly because of dollar difference. But even with the expensive freight, with the dollar being higher in the US, we might be able to move some of that stuff over there.”

As well as the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence, other inland river freight-routes have been plagued with lower-than-normal water levels. Major European and Chinese water-freight routes, the Rhine River, and the Yangtze River have both experienced low water levels this year.