Prospects to Move Saskatchewan Potash by Inland Waterway

May 9, 2013

By Harry Valentine



During the summer months and during periods of normal seasonal rainfall, the North Saskatchewan River becomes navigable between Saskatoon and The Pas and into Clear Lake in Manitoba. It may be possible to install navigation locks between Clear Lake and Lake Winnipeg at Grand Rapids, to transit barges. Water flows from Lake Winnipeg and through the Nelson River into Hudson Bay, with future prospects of developing a navigable waterway to transit barges between Lake Winnipeg and Hudson Bay.

In the future, tugs may navigate barge trains between the mouth of the Nelson River and the Port of Churchill, where a vessel-to-vessel transfer of bulk cargo may occur. Potash mines are located close to the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers, downstream of North Battleford and of Lake Diefenbaker. A direct waterway connection between the potash mines and the Port of Churchill has the potential to allow for cost competitive bulk transportation during periods of warmer weather, provided that European and/or Middle Eastern customers were willing to buy Saskatchewan potash.


The competing transportation link would be the railway line that connects between the Port of Churchill and the town of Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan – – with railway lines connecting to Prince Albert and Saskatoon. A major stretch of the railway line between the Port of Churchill and the Saskatchewan border is built on muskeg that is limited in its ability to support heavy weight. As a result, freight trains need to operate with restricted axle loadings and are otherwise unable to carry the heavier weight that is permissible along mainline intercity railway tracks.

CN Rail has recently announced a $100-million upgrade to their main railway line between Saskatoon and Winnipeg. The railway may supplement the navigable waterway between Saskatoon and Lake Winnipeg, by carrying a portion of the bulk cargo of potash and agricultural grain. During periods of restricted navigation along the North Saskatchewan River, trains may interline with barges on the Red River near Selkirk, Manitoba, to transfer bulk freight to barges that sail between Lake Winnipeg and the Port of Churchill.

Northwestern waterway:

During summer, the Mackenzie River is navigable between the Beaufort Sea and Great Slave Lake, with future prospects of developing barge navigation along the Slave River to the confluence of the Peace and Athabasca Rivers, as well as into Lake Athabasca. There is direct waterway connection between Lake Athabasca and Wollaston Lake in Saskatchewan, with prospects to modify the waterway to make it barge navigable. The southeastern corner of Wollaston Lake is located to the northwest of and within 30 kilometres of Reindeer Lake and scope to build a navigable barge canal between them.

The Reindeer River flows south from Reindeer Lake and into the Churchill River, with the confluence of the two rivers located some 12 kilometres from the northern corner of Deschambault Lake and to the north of the community of Pelican Narrows. The close proximity between the Churchill River and Deschambault Lake would allow for the construction of a navigable canal. A river flows from Pelican Narrows through Amisk Lake and joins the Saskatchewan River, with prospects to develop the waterway for barge future navigation. An inland waterway connection between the Beaufort Sea and the North Saskatchewan River may be a future possibility.

Efficient use of water:

While Western Canada often experiences spring floods, it can also experience summer drought and require river navigation to use water very efficiently. The navigation infrastructure would include navigation locks with covered side reservoirs plus water pumps driven by grid-electric power to pump water and barges in the navigation locks to higher elevation. Navigation locks may include turbines connected to water pumps to reduce water usage. Water would pass through a turbine as it flows from higher elevation to lower elevation, while the pump would push some 33 per cent of water volume in the lock back upstream to higher elevation.

There may be scope to install water-inflatable giant bags on the riverbeds of the Mackenzie River and its tributaries. These bags were developed for installation at great depth on the ocean floor and to be pumped with compressed air as a form of water over compressed air energy storage. When pumped with water, the same bags may be used to reduce the channel cross-sectional area and restrict water volume flow rates at select locations along the waterway. The combination of these technologies may be applied at navigation locks and along canals that would form a future Western Canadian inland waterway.

Waterway economics:

The American inland waterway network along the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio and Allegheny Rivers provides a basis or model by which to develop inland waterway transportation at other regions, including Canada. A massive tonnage of bulk cargo that originates from the north-central regions near the Upper Great Lakes moves by river barge to the Port of New Orleans. The waterway distance between Saskatchewan and Tuktoyaktuk is comparable to the American inland waterway system. Rail distances between bulk freight points-of-origin and west coast ports are also comparable. In terms of moving massive bulk tonnage, maritime is more cost competitive than rail.

A navigable waterway between Lake Winnipeg and the Port of Churchill could carry massive bulk tonnage in excess of trains and attract customers wishing to export agricultural grains and mining ores. A navigable waterway between Saskatchewan and Tuktoyaktuk would carry massive bulk tonnage at a fraction of the transportation cost of the railways. Tug-navigated barge trains would sail the western inland waterway and interline at Tuktoyaktuk with oceanic bulk mega-carriers destined to sail to Asian ports. The covered ‘hopper cars’ on water would sail the Mackenzie during the summer and the Nelson River as cooler weather approaches.

Foxe Basin mining:

Several mining companies have indicated their interest in developing mines around the Foxe Basin, north of Hudson Bay. Initial plans call for bulk ore carriers to carry the unprocessed ore through the Hudson Strait while sailing to southern locations to process the ore. An alternative plan may involve trains or tows of barges built with reinforced and “unrestricted” hull design carrying ore from around the Foxe basin, into a future Nelson River made navigable into Lake Winnipeg, with western access along a more navigable Saskatchewan River to Western Canadian ore processing facilities.

Extended length barge trains may carry processed ore along a Western Canadian navigable waterway that would connect through Lake Athabasca and into the Slave and Mackenzie Rivers to the Port of Tuktoyaktuk. There would likely be Asian markets for certain types of ore and processed ore, along with markets for potash, Prairie wheat and Prairie legumes. Barge train could carry massive tonnage or massive volume of bulk freight to a port on the Beaufort Sea at lower cost-per-ton than either railway or truck transport.

Alberta Oil:

Barges coupled into trains (tows) are capable of carrying bulk cargo at lower cost per ton or per barrel than railway transportation. It may be possible for two to three tugs to navigate extended length barge tows on the Athabasca, Slave and Mackenzie Rivers to move large volumes of Alberta oil to the Port of Tuktoyaktuk on the Beaufort Sea, from points of origin as far south as Fort McMurray. There will be a need to build navigation locks along the Athabasca and Slave Rivers that will both have to be dredged to a depth of 12 feet (3.6 metres).

Automated navigation technology from Autonav would co-ordinate the operation of two to three tugs so as to navigate an extended length barge tow carrying oil or compressed natural gas between Fort McMurray and Tuktoyaktuk. While railways may carry a base minimum load of oil throughout the year, barge tows would carry massive volumes of oil during the summer navigation season. The volume of oil being moved would determine the feasibility of operating small icebreakers along the waterway to extend the navigation season from four months to perhaps six months.


There may be scope to develop a navigable barge canal across Western Canada, connecting between Hudson Bay and the Beaufort Sea via Lake Winnipeg and Lake Athabasca. The canal/waterway would mainly carry bulk cargo such are ore, refined or processed ore, agricultural dry bulk and perhaps oil and/or compressed natural gas. While the waterway may only operate for up to six months of the year, its capacity to move massive tonnage and or massive volume at competitive prices would likely attract major customers that represent industries that need to move bulk cargo.