BY GARY MAY
If you’ve noticed some of your favourite imported beers — like Belgium’s Leffe — have been absent from the store shelves recently, it’s most likely the result of low water levels in the St. Lawrence River.
Low water, especially in Lake St. Louis west of Montreal, has created a bottleneck in shipping on the Seaway by forcing freight haulers to cut back on their cargoes. An unusually dry winter — especially in the Upper Ottawa River Valley and its drainage basin — is to blame.
Gail Faveri, Canadian secretary for the International St. Lawrence River Board of Control in Burlington, tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com that less water coming down the Ottawa River has reduced the flow of the St. Lawrence downstream from where the two rivers intersect. Hydro-Québec reports that the St. Lawrence through that province is lower now than at any point over the past four decades.
And while the St. Lawrence as a whole is lower than its long-term averages, the situation is critical west of Montreal, and that’s where the shipping bottleneck is occurring.
As for that imported beer, LCBO spokesman Chris Layton says, “We have been experiencing some delays related to water levels. It has dropped fairly substantially.”
But, Layton adds, help is on the way.
“We’ve worked to arrange an additional shipping company to come in and get the stock moving. We’re on to it," he told MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. "Hopefully, delays won’t be lengthy.”
Faveri notes that the level of Ontario’s Lake St. Lawrence, between Iroquois and Cornwall, is actually higher than average, the result of level controls at those dams. To address low water around Montreal, more water has been released from Lake Ontario to at least keep levels above the “critical” range.
It doesn’t take long for the economic impact of low water to be felt. The Lake Carriers Association in Cleveland calculates that for every inch or four centimetres of water the Seaway system drops, ship bulk cargoes must be reduced by 245 metric tonnes. That amounts to 24 fewer containers, which could explain why that precious cargo of imported beer didn't make it on the ship.
Meanwhile, smaller cargoes mean higher transportation costs. But the impact isn’t only felt by the freight-hauling industry.
For Ontario’s waterfront communities, pleasure craft are also affected, although a check with several marina operators suggests the issue is more of an annoyance than a critical problem.
Water management a sensitive issue
Lucas Pearson, owner/manager of Tunnel Bay Marina in Brockville, tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com the river is definitely lower than usual, “but we’re still in the safe range. It’s down a foot and a half here. There’s still lots of water to go boating, though. If a boater’s not careful, he could run aground at any time.”
Pearson adds that he’s glad water levels are receiving the attention they deserve. “Water management has to be done proactively for many reasons,” he says.
That is the job of the international control board. The board is mandated by the International Joint Commission to direct outflows from the Moses-Saunders Dam near Cornwall under a strict series of regulations.
And within the small area of discretion the board enjoys, Faveri says it must consider the interests of waterfront communities, recreational boating, commercial shipping, power production, municipal water supply and the environment — interests that are often at odds with one another.
For example, shippers might like higher levels, but that could be hazardous to the environment, flooding marshlands and increasing erosion.
Faveri says the board “is aware that conditions have been dry of late and is carefully watching water level and water supply conditions for Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.”
About 80 per cent of the water in Lake Ontario comes from the upper lakes, with the other 20 per cent a result of precipitation and flow from its own basin. Ontario is currently slightly below its long-term average, says Faveri.
She points out that shippers likely became accustomed to the high water levels that marked much of the 1980s and 1990s, and are now finding they can’t maintain the large cargoes of that era.
For lovers of imports like beer, that means store shelves might be empty more often.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com - June 2010