Minnesota Department of Transportation

511 Travel Info

Commercial Waterways


A barge.

The Mississippi River System

The Mississippi River System stretches over 222 miles in Minnesota and supports five port areas whose combined 2012 tonnage was 10.7 million net tons. The River accounts for over 50 percent of Minnesota’s agricultural exports.

Minnesota’s largest river tonnage commodities are agricultural products such as corn, soybeans and wheat. In 2012, Minnesota shipped over 4.4 million tons of grain down the river. River ports also handle other dry commodities such as fertilizer, cement, sand and gravel, salt, coal, steel and scrap metals for recycling. Liquid products include petroleum, caustic soda, vegetable oils, molasses and anhydrous ammonia.

The Mississippi River Navigation System is maintained by the U.S. Corps of Engineers. They dredge the width and depth of the channel to accommodate 9-foot deep barges, and they operate the 29 locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi. The locks are also used by recreational boaters at no cost. The commercial barge operators on the River pay a user fee of 20 cents per gallon of fuel purchased. These dollars are used to pay for half of major federal lock structure improvements.

Annual Minnesota River Port Tonnage
Port 2012 2011 2010
2009
2008
2007
2006
Minneapolis 671,691 645,445 592,404
545,840
781,155
795,372
1,069,238
St. Paul 5,551,737 5,247,992 5,160,120
5,071,864
3,469,383
5,126,732
5,511,445
Savage 1,921,603 1,844,711 2,411,361
2,777,677
1,705,650
3,201,406
3,214,351
Red Wing 836,497 924,060 807,021
735,417
631,870
851,692
920,610
Winona 1,697,955 1,969,712 1,922,462
1,672,630
1,573,239
2,099,746
2,204,375
Total 10,679,483 10,631,920 10,893,368
10,803,428
8,160,297
12,074,948
12,920,019

•Annual tonnages will vary due to seasonal flooding, freight rates and foreign grain demand

Lake Superior / Great Lakes / St. Lawrence Seaway

Minnesota has four ports on Lake Superior including Taconite Harbor, Silver Bay, Two Harbors and Duluth/Superior. Their combined waterway tonnage for 2012 was just over 61 million tons, about 1.2 million tons more than 2011. World steel production is improving, which is increasing taconite demand on the Great Lakes. Great Lakes taconite shipped from Minnesota amounted to over 40 million tons in 2012, a 2.4 million ton increase over 2011. Taconite amounted to 67% of Minnesota’s Great Lakes tonnage in 2012. Taconite is mined in northeast Minnesota and shipped via the Great Lakes to steel mills in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The Port of Two Harbors is the leading taconite export dock in Minnesota at 16,547,843 net tons in 2012.

Western coal is the second leading commodity shipped from Duluth/Superior in 2012 at 14,129,546 net tons. This is down about 1.3 million tons from 2011, reflecting a switch to natural gas for some power plants in the system. This trend will continue, but more coal will now be shipped to fill overseas demand.

Other commodities handled by the Port of Duluth/Superior include over 1 million tons of grain shipped out, as well as cement, salt, steel, limestone and wind generator components.

The U.S. Corps of Engineers operates three of the 16 locks on the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway and maintains a 29-foot deep channel throughout this system. The Canadian government operates and maintains the other 13 locks.

Ships that operate only on the Great Lakes are called “Lakers”. Some of the Lakers range to over 1,000 feet long, 105 feet wide and have a capacity of 65,000-70,000 net tons at 26’6” draft – the maximum draft allowed. Since 1999, lake levels on the Great Lakes System have been low, primarily due to drought, which has restricted ship tonnage by as much as 6,000 tons per trip. Less tonnage per trip results in higher freight costs per ton, both to the carrier and to the shipper.

Annual Minnesota Great Lakes Tonnage
Port 2012 2011 2010
2009
2008
2007
2006
Duluth/Superior 36,673,052 37,101,554 39,804,806
31,210,918
45,640,001
47,858,484
47,234,022
Two Harbors 16,547,843 16,070,740 13,892,225
6,222,014
13,302,382
13,736,351
14,447,328
Silver Bay 7,142,154 5,818,286   6,617,247
3,384,622
7,217,823
5,487,958
4,814,261
Taconite Harbor 657,700 806,000  663,934
709,108
895,868
914,022
939,065
Total 61,020,749 59,796,580 60,978,212
41,526,662
67,056,074
67,996,815
67,434,676

•Annual tonnages will vary due to low water, ice conditions and commodity demand