Quebec Commerce and Dropping Water Levels in the Great Lakes (Print Version)
by Harry Valentine*
Le Québécois Libre, June
15, 2010, No 279.

Over the past one hundred years, water levels at the Port of Montreal are estimated to have dropped by two metres (roughly six feet). Changing weather patterns across North America have on several occasions over the past number of years raised concerns about water levels in the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. Much of the commerce of Montreal depends on international trade and the ability of large ships to travel along the St. Lawrence River between the Port of Montreal and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Dropping water levels in the Great Lakes could disrupt commercial ship transport between Montreal and several inland cities located west of Montreal, and also reduce hydroelectric power generation along the St. Lawrence Seaway system.

Regulatory Failure

The regulation of the waterway is under federal jurisdiction, just as the east coast codfish industry was. Federal regulators depended on highly educated and perhaps politically well-connected advisors to advise them on fish quotas. Somehow government authorities and numerous luminaries in academia had convinced themselves that government regulation of the codfish industry would assure the sustained and perpetual longevity of that industry. Then the fishery collapsed. The failure of that industry while it was subject to federal regulation, supervision and management suggests not only a massive failure of state regulation; it also suggests that the research of the highly educated and politically well-connected advisors was essentially worthless.

The federal department that oversaw the health and well being of Canada's east coast codfish industry is one of the governmental authorities that has jurisdiction on matters that pertain to the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. Government advisors were unable to forecast the impending collapse of the codfish industry that they supervised. Neither are they able to produce any accurate long-term weather forecasts. They do not know if the dropping water levels in the Great Lakes are a short-term event or a long-term phenomenon. Nonetheless, they have regulatory powers over the river system that leads from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. If water levels on the Lower St. Lawrence River east of Montreal drop to a point that impedes commercial ship navigation, the cost of transportation will increase, as will the cost of goods passing through the Port of Montreal.

If the Great Lakes are a giant water tank, then the Lower St. Lawrence River is the outlet pipe, and without a faucet to control water loss. Federal authorities can allow for the installation of a faucet or control valve on the water outlet pipe or they can prohibit such action. If they prohibit the installation of the equivalent of a control valve or a series of control valves along the Lower St. Lawrence River between Montreal and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, they risk the viability of commercial ship navigation along that river. In the worst-case scenario, water levels along the Lower St. Lawrence River would decline to levels too low for ships to navigate.

Private Solutions

James Jerome Hill built the Great Northern Railroad with private capital. The combination of dropping water levels in the Great Lakes and the effect on navigation depth along the Lower St. Lawrence River could create a business case for the ship industry to install various forms of control valves at regular intervals along that river. It might otherwise become necessary to operate ships at part load, greatly increasing transportation costs per payload. Transferring payload destined for Montreal or points west of Montreal at Halifax or Montmagny would also increase transportation costs, and therefore costs for the end user or customer.

Higher transportation costs would increase the cost of some Canadian export items in relation to competing foreign-made items, while also raising the cost of imported items. If federal authorities were willing, it might be possible to install privately-funded control valves such as conventional navigation locks at Sorel. Alternately, a series of underwater navigation locks with buoys on the water surface to guide ships could maintain navigation depth. It is possible that such an option may actually allow fully laden ships to serve the Port of Montreal at lower cost than operating ships at reduced load along the Lower St. Lawrence River or transferring cargo at Halifax of at a port near Quebec City.

However, federal authorities may be uncomfortable with the prospect of a privately owned and operated, for-profit navigation lock system for commercial ship traffic. Most of the water that flows to Montreal passes through Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, where there is abundant storage capacity in the event of one or more seasons of excess rainfall during a prolonged period of changing weather patterns that involve less rainfall. The alternative to a water control system along the Lower St. Lawrence River may be a repeat of the east coast codfish industry collapse, perhaps with a moratorium on commercial ship traffic on the river. The Bloc Quebecois and the Parti Quebecois would then have a field day, both blaming Ottawa for the predicament.

* Harry Valentine is a free-marketeer living in Eastern Ontario.