Pressure to export water to U.S. likely
Published January 1, 2006
OTTAWA -- There was an edge of frustration in Paul Cellucci's
voice when he raised the topic of fresh water exports
in a radio interview last month.
"Canada has probably one of the largest resources
of fresh water in the world," the former U.S. ambassador
said during a debate on Canada-U.S. relations.
"Water is going to be - already is - a very valuable
commodity and I've always found it odd where Canada is
so willing to sell oil and natural gas and uranium and
coal, which are by their very nature finite. But talking
about water is off the table, and water is renewable.
"It doesn't make any sense to me."
It was as close as any high-profile American has come
recently to saying what many Canadians have long suspected
- Washington wants our water.
Officially, the U.S. government says it's not interested
in Canadian water. But many believe the issue will soon
break into the open.
Maclean's magazine recently ran a cover story arguing
that Canada should sell its water "before they take
"This country is in a position to provide a solution
that would yield enormous economic and humanitarian benefits
for the entire continent, even the world," the magazine
wrote. Such viewpoints don't sit well with Peter Lougheed,
the former premier of Alberta.
In a recent speech to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce,
Lougheed called for an all-party declaration in the House
of Commons confirming Canada's refusal to allow large-scale
water transfers to its southern neighbour.
"We should not export our fresh water - we need
it and we should conserve it," Lougheed said. "And
we should communicate to the United States very quickly
how firm we are about it."
U.S. water shortages are becoming critical. Flow in the
Colorado River, which feeds the Las Vegas Valley, dropped
by almost half between 2000 and 2005 due to successive
droughts. Yet Canada has major water problems of its own.
The International Joint Commission has repeatedly warned
about declining water quality in the Great Lakes due to
toxic contamination, and water levels in the lakes have
dropped to record lows.
"Although the Great Lakes contain about 20 per cent
of the fresh water on the Earth's surface, only one per
cent of this water is renewed each year," the commission
noted in a recent report.
Ontario, Quebec and eight states signed a deal earlier
this month that will prevent thirsty jurisdictions in
the southern U.S. from getting access to water from the
But critics have said the deal still allows for water
to be withdrawn at unacceptable levels.
The biggest threat, though, hangs over Western Canada.
The most important rivers in the Prairies are fed by mountain
glaciers, and the glaciers are melting due to climate
"The consequences of these hydrological changes
for water availability . . . are likely to be severe,"
said a study published last month in the British science
Cities like Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatoon are at risk
of literally losing the rivers on which they are built
over the next generation or two.
"It's a huge problem," says Andrew Weaver of
the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University
of Victoria. "These glaciers are basically toast.
They won't be around by the end of the century, or they'll
be around in such insignificant amounts that it won't
be a big source of water. You've got to start thinking
about adaptation here."
The shrinkage of the glaciers is well-documented. Visitors
to Glacier National Park in Alberta can follow the retreat
of the Athabasca Glacier over the past century by visiting
the cairns that used to mark the toe of the glacier.
"That's fossil water and when it's gone, it's gone,"
said Tim Barnett of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography
at La Jolla, California, lead author of the article in
Nature. "If you really are glacier-fed in a warming
world, you're up the creek without a paddle, no pun intended."
Maude Barlow, chairwoman of the Council of Canadians,
argues that a global shortage of water will be the most
threatening ecological, economic and political crisis
in the 21st century. But she says Canada's apparent abundance
of blue gold is illusory.
"There is no water to spare in the Great Lakes.
The only place one could go for the kind of massive water
they're talking about is up north and all those rivers
are flowing north, so you'd have to be undertaking huge
engineering projects to reverse the flow of water.
"So this notion that we have lots of water sitting
around is absolutely false."
Barlow says the federal government can't legally ban
bulk water exports because water is included in NAFTA.
Ottawa has banned inter-basin transfers but she questions
whether the ban could be enforced against a provincial
government determined to export.
She rejects the suggestion that Canada would be doing
a service to the world by sharing its water: "I think
it would end up going to places that can buy it as opposed
to places that need it."
Despite evidence that water is being wasted on a massive
scale, municipalities still don't charge residents the
real cost of water or effectively promote conservation.
Due to budget cuts in recent years, the federal government
has cut back on water research, closing monitoring stations
and reducing data collection on water supplies. The underground
aquifers that store the nation's groundwater haven't been
mapped, so there is no way to know if they are being depleted
"As a society we are largely forging ahead blindly
when it comes to our management of water," the Senate
environment committee said in a report tabled just before
the government fell on Nov. 28. "We are in essence
gambling with our most precious but often under-appreciated
The committee recommended that Ottawa create a National
Water Council to develop strategies on key water issues.
But its report went virtually unnoticed amid the excitement
of the election call.