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Future Agricultural Transport on North American Waterways

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Port of Churchill (courtesy Harry Valentine)

By Harry Valentine 05-24-2020 11:56:43

The long-term trend of annual rainfall taken across Northern USA and Southern Canada for over a century reveals a steady increase. Redirecting some seasonal spring flood water through pipes into water tables would bypass frozen ground and enhance summer agricultural production. That production would influence future seasonal agricultural bulk transportation along North American inland waterways.
 
North America’s inland waterways carry massive amounts of bulk freight at lower per ton operating costs that railway and truck transport. As winter approaches and cash crops harvested, waterway transport moves massive volumes of produce such as corn, soy, barley, oats and wheat to both domestic and overseas markets. Long-term measurements on precipitation over the watershed regions of the Great Lakes and many major rivers, indicates a steady increase over the duration of a century, with severe spring flooding having recently occurred in several areas. Frozen ground prevents flood water from entering the water tables.

A technique called aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) involves using pipes to transfer water into deep level underground storage. Vertical pipes installed into deeply drilled boreholes could bypass frozen ground and transfer massive volumes of spring floodwater deep into the water table. During the growing season, farmers could access that water to sustain crop cultivation and especially in areas where summer drought follows spring flooding. The combination of increased precipitation and revised management of water resources could provide the basis for increased summer crop production in the northern regions of the USA and much of Canada.

Lake terminals

Massive grain silos located around Lake Superior MI at Duluth and at Thunder Bay ON serve as grain transshipment terminals between railway and waterway transportation, with downstream grain terminals being location at Buffalo NY and at Prescott/Johnstown ON. Beginning about a decade ago, increased grain production in Eastern Ontario prompted a private group to submit application to convert a closed ship oil terminal located along the Upper St Lawrence River to a grain terminal, except that the terminal would have been located too close to prime waterfront residential property. Other locations are possible around Lake Ontario.

The Port of Oswego NY is a bulk port that is also located within close proximity to the grain growing region of New York State. Increased precipitation combined with transferring floodwater into groundwater offers the potential to increase future crop yields. Located north of Port of Oswego is the Port of Picton ON, with a deep channel approach, a substantial turning basin and with available land located far from prime waterfront residential property. Future increased grain yields from Eastern Ontario could justify construction of grain storage silos at Port of Picton. 

Transshipment

Shortly after the completion of the St Lawrence Seaway and construction of the grain terminals at Duluth and Thunder Bay, plans were hatched to operate grain terminals downstream of the Upper Great Lakes. A pair of such terminals materialized on the Canadian side, at Kingston ON and at Prescott (Johnstown) ON. The Kingston terminal closed as more overseas bulk carriers sailed to Thunder Bay and Duluth, with Port of Johnstown serving grain growers of Eastern Ontario. The future prospect of suitable weather conditions increasing northern agricultural production invites reconsideration of grain/produce transshipment along the Seaway.

Larger ships sail on North America’s Upper Great Lakes than sail between Port of Montreal and Lake Ontario. If Canada increased navigations lock sizes between Lakes Ontario and Erie, larger lake ships that carry 80% more bulk cargo than Seaway-max ships could sail to Lake Ontario and possible grain transshipment terminals located at any of Ports of Oswego, Hamilton, Oshawa, Toronto, Picton and if environmentalists were willing, St. Lawrence River Ports of Johnstown and Ogdensburg. Larger ships sailing into Lake Ontario would enhance the viability of silo operation and transshipment of bulk freight.

Warmer Arctic

Changing weather patterns have opened seasonal navigation channels across the Canadian Arctic. The same long-term weather patterns would allow for commercial agriculture at more northern locations, with potential for northern ports at the mouths of the Mackenzie, Churchill and Moose Rivers. Railway lines already extend to Hudson Bay at Churchill and to James Bay Moosonee. A warmer Arctic will extend the seasonal navigation has long been available between the Mackenzie River and Bering Strait, also along the Mackenzie River between Great Slave Lake and the Beaufort Sea. It also makes possible seasonal navigation between Hudson Bay and Bering Strait.

Future commercial crops grown in northwestern Canada could move north along the Mackenzie River on barge trains that meet bulk carriers destined for Asian ports, at the Beaufort Sea. Expanded commercial agriculture in Northern Ontario could move by rail to Moosonee and transferred to ships destined to sail via the Arctic, for Asian ports. Future crops grown in Northern Manitoba could move via a re-activated Port of Churchill to Northern European ports. Crops sailing via the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway would be destined for Mediterranean and Middle Eastern ports.

Conclusions

Long-term weather patterns offer the prospect of increased precipitation in the northern regions and potentially increasing seasonal northern agricultural production. Changing weather patterns have reduced rainfall in other parts of the world and reduced agricultural output. As a result, the maritime sector will be required to carry additional agricultural output from North American to overseas markets. Increased North American food production would require increased storage volume and require construction of new grain terminals on Lake Ontario, on Great Slave Lake and even on James Bay.

An increase in northern grain production would likely re-activate the grain terminal at Port of Churchill on Hudson Bay, where changing weather patterns would likely extend the navigation season further into the fall months. The tundra railway bed to Port of Churchill would likely require that grain hopper cars carry reduced tonnage, leaving substantial future western Canadian grain production to be shipped via the Port of Thunder Bay. Increased navigation lock sizes would allow larger lake ships to sail to grain terminals on Lake Ontario and possibly on the Upper St. Lawrence River.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.