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Great Lakes Article:

Water tension 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 public awareness.

"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 review.

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."


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