Volume 40, Number 5: September/October 2006

Turning on Canada’s Tap

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper sat down with President George W. Bush in their first White House meeting on July 6, one of the “unmentionable” items on their agenda may well have been the question of bulk water exports from Canada. After all, Bush himself raised the issue back in July, 2001, when he talked “off the cuff” to reporters about growing water shortages in his home state of Texas and elsewhere in the country, saying he would like to begin negotiations with Ottawa on water exports from Canada. In Texas, he said, “water is more valuable than oil.” “A lot of people don’t need it, but when you head south and west, we need it,” Bush declared, adding that he “looked forward” to discussing the matter with then-prime minister Jean Chretien.

At the time, the reaction from Canadian officials was swift and blunt. “We’re absolutely not going to export water, period,” proclaimed David Anderson, then Canada’s environment minister. Anderson’s comment reflected what seems to be a general public consensus that water should not be treated like other natural resources (like oil, natural gas, minerals, timber, etc.), as a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market to U.S. customers. After Anderson’s reaction, the issue seemed to fade from the news headlines until former U.S. ambassador Paul Cellucci revived the issue in the early stages of the 2005-06 federal election.

The question now is whether Canada’s new PM is willing to put water on the table in negotiating a new relationship with the United States. Although Harper’s specific views on water exports are not known, he has called for more “economic and security integration” with the U.S., highlighting the need for a continental energy strategy that would include “a range of other natural resources.” As a new era of Canada-U.S. relations opens up, Canadians would do well to take a closer look at the forces moving behind the scenes to turn on the taps for massive water exports to the United States.

The Growing American Thirst

Today, the largest world’s largest economic and military superpower is facing the problem of acute water shortages within its own borders. Twenty-one per cent of farmland irrigation in the U.S. comes from pumping groundwater at rates that exceed the water’s ability to recharge. In effect, this means those aquifers that are the country’s source of freshwater are rapidly being depleted and are drying up. The lethal combination of severe droughts and dried-up wells has become the plague of many U.S. farmers. Every year, now, it is estimated that more than U.S. $400 billion is lost in America’s farmlands because of the depletion of aquifers. A prime example is the Ogallala aquifer, one of the world’s most famous underground bodies of water, which is being depleted at a rate 14 times faster than nature can restore it.

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In California, the major aquifers are also drying up. With the Colorado River strained to the limit, the water table under California’s San Joaquin Valley has dropped nearly ten meters in some areas during the past fifty years. In the state’s Central Valley, overuse of underground water supplies has resulted in a loss of over forty per cent of the combined storage capacity of all the human-made reservoirs in California. The desert regions of the American southwest – Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico – largely barren of water, continue to experience population growth. In Bush’s home state of Texas, water scarcity is also approaching a critical stage, where cities like El Paso are expected to be dried up by 2030. Moving further into the American Midwest, Chicago and Milwaukee could also be facing severe water shortages. The huge sandstone aquifer underlying the Illinois-Wisconsin border, which supplies these two major cities with their water supplies, is currently overtaxed and may well be depleted in the near future, say scientists, unless there are significant reductions in groundwater withdrawals.

In short, the U.S. is becoming more and more thirsty, even as it reaches the danger point of running out of its own freshwater sources. When the U.S. government surveyed the fifty states of the Union in 2003, it found that more than two-thirds predicted they would face water shortages in one form or another over the next ten years. And the U.S. government appears unprepared to confront this impending water crisis. In June, 2004, the National Academies of Science and the U.S. Geological Survey reported that Washington is ill-prepared to deal with water shortages emerging across the country.

Water-Rich Canada?

As the U.S. water crisis intensifies, one quick-fix solution is to tap into what is perceived to be Canada’s considerable water wealth. According to this scenario, Canada is a giant green sponge full of freshwater lakes and rivers – a massive reservoir of water that can be tapped to serve the insatiable thirst of people and industries in urban America. Globally speaking, Canada is ranked fourth in the world in terms of surface sources of freshwater – lakes, rivers and glaciers. All it would take is the construction of a network of new dams, reservoirs, canals, tunnels, pipelines and supertankers to transport water in bulk form from Canada to the United States.

The largest freshwater system on the planet is, of course, the Great Lakes lying between Canada and the United States, which contain no less than twenty per cent of the world’s freshwater. But the Great Lakes have also been a dumping ground for industrial wastes, contaminating much of the lake water and ground water in the region. Indeed, the International Joint Commission declared in its 2000 Final Report on the Protection of Waters in the Great Lakes, that there is no surplus water in the Great Lakes and emphatically warned against any new diversions. Moreover, scientists are now warning that drought patterns are returning to the prairies, as river systems like the South Saskatchewan, Old Man, Peace and Athabasca show signs of drying up. And these re-emerging drought patterns are bound to intensify with global warming. Already, the glacier that feeds Alberta’s Bow River is melting so quickly that there may be no water left in it fifty years from now.

Although there is no doubt that Canada is blessed by nature’s endowment with numerous freshwater lakes and rivers, it should also be noted that sixty per cent of our rivers flow north into Hudson’s Bay and the Arctic region. As a result, sixty per cent of Canada’s freshwater flows in the opposite direction of the U.S. and is largely inaccessible. Even so, say politicians, engineers and economists on both sides of the border, there are ways of overcoming these obstacles through new technologies and investment.

Mega Export Schemes

Over the past four decades, a series of mega-diversion schemes have been planned for massive bulk water transfers from Canada to the U.S. In retrospect, these megaprojects can be categorized in terms of three major water corridors. Western Corridor: The centerpiece of the western water corridor flowing from Canada to the U.S. is the North American Water and Power Alliance. NAWAPA was originally designed to bring bulk water from Alaska and northern British Columbia for delivery to 35 U.S. states. By building a series of large dams, the northward flow of the Yukon, Peace, Liard and a host of other rivers (Tanana, Copper, Skeena, Bella Coola, Dean, Chilcotin, and Fraser) would be reversed to move southward and pumped into the Rocky Mountain Trench, where the water would be trapped in a giant reservoir approximately 800 kilometres long. A canal would then be built to take the water southward into Washington State, where it would be channeled through existing canals and pipelines to supply freshwater for customers in 35 states. The annual volume of water to be diverted through the NAWAPA project is estimated to be roughly equivalent to the average total yearly discharge of the entire St. Lawrence River system.

Central Corridor: Another water corridor consists of a series of water-diversion schemes proposed from the Northwest Territories through the prairies to the U.S. In 1968, the Washington State Resource Center developed plans for the Central North American Water Project (CeNAWAP). The plan calls for a series of canals and pumping stations linking Great Bear Lake and Great Slave Lake in the N.W.T. to Lake Athabaska and Lake Winnipeg and then to the Great Lakes for bulk water exports to the U.S. A variation on the CeNAWAP is the Kuiper Diversion Scheme, which proposes to link the major western rivers into a mega-diversion scheme involving the Mackenzie, Peace, Athabasca, North Saskatchewan, Nelson and Churchill river systems.

Eastern Corridor: The principal eastern water corridor is known as the Great Recycling and Northern Development (GRAND) Canal. As originally conceived, the GRAND Canal plans called for the damming and rerouting of northern river systems in Quebec in order to bring freshwater through canals down into the Great Lakes, whence it would be flushed into the American Midwest. A dike would be built across James Bay at its mouth at Hudson Bay (whose natural flow is northward), thereby turning the bay into a giant, 30,000-square-mile reservoir of freshwater from the twenty rivers that flow into it. Through a system of dikes, canals, dams, power plants and locks, the water would then be diverted from the reservoir and rerouted southward down a 167-mile canal at a rate of about 282,000 litres per second into two of the Great Lakes –Superior and Huron. From there, the water would be flushed through canals into markets in both the American Midwest and Sun Belt.

There are, of course, multiple reasons why none of these massive water corridors have been built in the intervening decades since they were first proposed. One reason is that America’s thirst has been temporarily quenched by internal bulk water transfers within the U.S. A second reason is the problem of securing sufficient capital to pay for highly expensive bulk water export schemes like those described above, and whether this should come from private or public investment. A third reason may also have been the need for new or improved engineering technologies required for some of the more geographically challenging projects.

Yet, underlying all these reasons is the question of political will. According to opinion polls, most Canadians remain skeptical about selling our water to the U.S. In a 2002 survey conducted by the Centre for Research and Information on Canada, 69 per cent were opposed to bulk water exports. Three years before this poll was taken, the House of Commons actually passed a motion (introduced by the New Democrats) calling on the federal government to ban the export of water. In response, the Liberal government of the day refused to issue a ban on water exports, contending it would contravene Canada’s obligations under NAFTA and, instead, worked with the provinces to develop a Canada-wide Water Accord aimed at discouraging bulk water exports. Yet, precisely because of NAFTA, which prohibits countries from putting a ban or quota on the exports of their natural resources, the water accord is largely ineffective.

Which brings us back to Stephen Harper. Will he and his government be the ones who finally muster the political will to give Washington the green light and permit bulk water takings? Is this the price that Harper is prepared to pay, on behalf of Canadians, to seal a new grand bargain with the U.S., just as Brian Mulroney did when he gave away Canada’s energy resources in the eleventh hour of the free-trade negotiations?