rising between Canada and U.S.
Issues surfacing as population growth puts more pressure
on shared lakes and rivers
Globe and Mail
By Wendy Stueck
Posted May 17, 2004
VANCOUVER -- As if softwood lumber, wheat and border security
weren't enough, add another item to the list of potential
sore points between Canada and the United States: Water.
"Water issues between the U.S. and Canada are becoming
increasingly central to our relations -- and tensions
are increasing," said Peter Gleick, co-founder and
president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development,
Environment and Security in Oakland, Calif.
A water specialist who has written widely on resource
issues, Mr. Gleick said population growth on both sides
of the border is putting more pressure on shared rivers
and lakes. And water controversies, including deaths from
E. coli-tainted water in Walkerton, Ont., and proposals
in both countries to divert or store water, have raised
"We realize increasingly that it's hard to touch
one piece of the system without affecting another piece,"
he said. "Because of that, there is increased sensitivity
to water policy actions on both sides of the border."
That sensitivity is evident across the country. In southeastern
B.C., a coal mine proposal has raised worries about environmental
effects and led to calls for governments to review a previous
International Joint Commission decision.
A Canada-U.S. agency set up to handle boundary water
disputes, the IJC in 1988 recommended against government
approval of a proposed coal mine in the same region, the
Flathead River basin.
This time around, critics say concerns flagged by the
IJC nearly 20 years ago still exist and that no development
should go ahead unless those issues are addressed.
As the coal issue heats up, the Canadian government has
already asked the IJC to review North Dakota's plan to
drain water from Devils Lake to stop repeated flooding,
a proposal Manitoba fears could pollute the Red River
and Lake Winnipeg. Also on the IJC agenda: the Milk and
St. Mary rivers, bones of contention between Alberta and
Montana. Montana contends it gets less than its fair share
from the rivers. And some believe other long-simmering
disputes, including the proposed Tulsequah Chief base
metals mine in northeastern B.C., in a watershed that
straddles B.C. and Alaska, should be put to the IJC for
Meanwhile, Canadian and U.S. officials have met concerning
a standoff between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
and mining company Teck Cominco Ltd.
Last year, the company and the EPA spent months working
on a plan for assessment and possible remediation of decades'
worth of pollution in Washington State's Lake Roosevelt,
downstream from Teck's smelter in Trail, B.C.
Talks broke down in late 2003 over the EPA's insistence
that it control the studies, a stance Teck Cominco read
as an attempt to impose U.S. laws on a Canadian company.
In a Jan. 8 diplomatic note to the U.S. Department of
State, Canada said it was concerned that an October EPA
order against Teck Cominco "may set an unfortunate
precedent, by causing transboundary environmental liability
cases to be initiated in both Canada and the United States."
Such water fights are unsurprising to Wendy Holm, a B.C.-based
agrologist and North American free-trade agreement specialist
who, in the 1990s, fought -- unsuccessfully -- to have
water excluded from the treaty.
At that time, public debate focused on bulk fresh-water
exports, an issue that raised the spectre of huge tankers
siphoning the Great Lakes to ship water to parched parts
of the United States.
That debate, she says, bypassed more important issues
-- including the impact of Alberta and B.C.'s booming
oil and gas sector on groundwater and potential irrigation
demands on Canadian water by U.S. interests.
Under the current treaty, she argues, American companies
using water in Canada for domestic purposes -- to run
an oil sands operation, for example -- have superior rights
to water than Canadian citizens or companies.
Currently, Ms. Holm is co-ordinating a new campaign to
have water excluded from the treaty by targeting those
who could be most affected by a water shortage -- farmers.
She said she didn't know whether American authorities
were yet aware of her campaign, but said she expects more
Canadians to sign on to what she sees as a fight for sovereignty.
"Around the world, we're seeing an increasing argument
between commodity and community, and where the rights
of one ends and the other's begins," she said. "Water
has to be the dividing line."