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Great Lakes Article:

Background information on bulk water removals and water export
From the Green Lane
Posted 10/23/2002

What does it mean?

Bulk water removal: the removal and transfer of water out of its basin of origin by man-made diversions (e.g., canals), tanker ships or trucks, and pipelines. Such removals have the potential, directly or cumulatively, to harm the health of a drainage basin. Small-scale removal, such as bottled water, is not considered bulk.

Watershed: a land area draining into a common watercourse or waterbody. Often called a catchment area, a drainage basin or a river basin. Examples of major watersheds in Canada include Atlantic (including the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River), Hudson Bay, Pacific and Arctic. For example, the Great Lakes Drainage Basin is not restricted to the lakes themselves, but includes the many rivers and their tributaries that ultimately flow into the lakes.

Boundary waters: shared waters with the Canada-U.S. border running through them. The principal boundary waters are the Great Lakes. The Upper Saint John river in New Brunswick and Maine is an example of a boundary river.


Canada's major watersheds contain approximately 9 percent of the world's renewable freshwater supply and 20 percent of the world's total freshwater resources, including waters captured in glaciers and the polar icecaps.

Water is the lifeblood of the environment, essential to the survival of all living things - plants , animals and humans . In conjunction with other variables such as climate change, and industrial, municipal and agricultural uses, bulk water removal projects could have direct or cumulative effect on watersheds. Impacts could include the inter-basin transfer of non-native micro-organisms and exotic species, the alteration of natural ecosystems and changes in water flows and levels, and ground water tables.

The watershed is the fundamental ecological unit in protecting and conserving water resources. A watershed or drainage basin approach, is environmentally sound and respects provincial and territorial authorities in water management. Provinces, Territories and the federal government are adopting a watershed approach as a key principle in water policy and legislation. The watershed approach recognizes the linkages of water systems and the need to manage water within drainage basins rather than on a river-by-river or lake-by-lake basis.

The preservation of watersheds is important for the health and integrity of our ecosystems and the communities that reside within them.


The Government of Canada's strategy to prohibit the bulk removal of water from major Canadian water basins, including for the purpose of export, is both environmentally sound and consistent with Canada's international trade obligations. It builds on sound water management principles and the need to protect the integrity of Canada's watersheds.

Water is a shared responsibility between the Federal, Provincial and Territorial governments, and each have an important role to play in protecting Canada's freshwater resources. The strategy recognizes that Provinces have the primary responsibility for water management and that the Government of Canada has certain legislative authorities in the areas of navigation, fisheries, federal land and shared water resources with the U.S. Actions by territorial governments are also becoming increasingly important as they assume greater responsibility over water resource management. All governments have an important role to play in achieving a permanent, Canada-wide solution to the prohibition of bulk water removal, including removal for export purposes.

The strategy respects Canada's trade obligations because it focusses on water in its natural state (e.g., in rivers or lakes). Water in its natural state is not a good or product, and is therefore not subject to international trade agreements. Nothing in the North American Free Trade Agreement or in the World Trade Organization agreements obliges Canada to exploit its water for commercial use or to begin exporting water in any form.


Amendments to the International Boundary Waters Treaty Act (IBWTA)

  • The Boundary Waters Treaty (1909) provides mechanisms to help prevent and resolve disputes, primarily concerning water quantity and quality along the Canada-U.S. boundary.
  • The International Joint Commission (IJC) was established under the Treaty. Parliament passed the International Boundary Waters Treaty Act (IBWTA) in 1911 to implement the Treaty.
  • The federal government, acting within its jurisdiction, is planning to introduce amendments to the IBWTA in Parliament in the fall 1999 which will give the Minister of Foreign Affairs authority over projects which have the potential of affecting levels and flows of boundary waters (specifically the Great Lakes)
  • The amendments will include a specific prohibition on bulk water removal from all boundary waters, principally the Great Lakes.
  • The amendments are being developed in close consultation with the Provinces and Territories. The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade is leading these consultations.

Reference to the IJC

  • A consistent Canada-U.S. approach to the issue is an important element in protecting our shared waters over the long term. In February Canada and the United States agreed on a joint reference to IJC; that would build on the IJC's 1985 study regarding consumptive uses, diversions, and bulk removals, including for export, from the Great Lakes.
  • Work on the first phase of this reference commenced on February 10th, 1999. Public hearings were held in 4 Canadian and 4 U.S. cities in spring of this year, where concerned citizens from both sides of the border, as well as interested organizations were engaged in the consultation process. As part of its examination, the IJC also consulted with interested provinces and territories in its work. On August 18th, the IJC submitted its interim report to the Canadian and U.S. governments. The key recommendation called for an immediate moratorium on bulk removal of water from the Great Lakes.
  • The IJC plans to consult broadly on the Interim Report over the next 6 months and submit its final report to the US and Canadian governments in February, 2000.


The long term security of Canada's freshwater requires that all governments implement legislation, regulations or policy to prohibit bulk water removals, including bulk water removals for the purpose of export. The Canada-wide Accord on prohibiting Bulk Water removals will be the formal instrument for aquiring this comittment all across Canada.

It is envisioned that Ministers of the Environment and other Ministers with freshwater responsibilites would sign the Accord and in keeping with other federal-provincial territorial agreements already in place, accountability for implemention would lie within each individual jurisdiction. Federal, provincial and territorial governments continue to work toward a common approach with fall 1999 as a target.


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