National battle looms over Great
Scripps Howard News Service
December 23, 2001
Beginning 10,000 years ago, retreating North American glaciers
carved out a marvel of nature so vast that it is easily
identifiable from outer space. Together, the Great Lakes
contain one-fifth of all the drinkable water on the surface
of the planet -- an estimated 6 quadrillion gallons.
With all that water on their doorstep, you wouldn't
think Americans and Canadians who live in the Great Lakes
basin would miss a few billion gallons. Guess again.
Protecting Great Lakes water from business and multinational
corporations that would load supertankers with water and
ship it to parched regions of the world at a profit has
become a cause celebre on both sides of the border.
In the mid-1980s, thirsty municipalities in Arizona
and California explored the possibility of acquiring vast
quantities of water from the lakes through a system of
pipelines and canals, but the project proved uneconomical.
In 1998, The Nova Group of Ontario proposed bottling and
shipping 156 million gallons a year from Lake Superior
to water-short regions of Asia. The proposal didn't get
much attention in the United States, but it prompted a
massive outcry in Canada, killing the deal.
There are other water deals that wouldn't directly involve
the Great Lakes, but could set a precedent were they to
succeed. Global Water Corp., a Canadian company, has had
a permit from Sitka, Alaska, since 1993 to ship up to
5 billion gallons a year of glacier water by tanker to
China and the Middle East. The transportation costs have
proved prohibitive so far and no shipments have taken
Another company, Sun Belt Water Inc. of Santa Barbara,
Calif., wants to ship water from British Columbia to Southern
California in supertankers capable of holding up to 75
million gallons each. Sun Belt has filed a multibillion-dollar
lawsuit against British Columbia, arguing that the province
violated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)
by backing out of the deal after it had issued a permit.
With freshwater shortages becoming commonplace in large
portions of the world, the future of the lakes has become
a sensitive diplomatic issue between the United States
and Canada. Canadians clearly fear that the United States
will muscle in on their vast water supplies. But telling
U.S. and Canadian entrepreneurs not to sell Great Lakes
water is akin to telling the Saudis not to sell oil.
"There is a demand outside the region for significant
quantities of water,'' said Reg Gilbert of Great Lakes
United, an umbrella group of 170 environmental, labor
and other interest groups in the region. "Lest anyone
think the fact that it's not feasible now means it won't
happen, all you have to do is to look back in history
at all the 'unfeasible' water projects that have been
constructed all over the West.''
Some experts believe that free trade agreements could
make it difficult for the region to block water exports.
In June, the governors of eight states bordering the Great
Lakes as well as the premiers of the Canadian provinces
of Ontario and Quebec signed an agreement pledging to
work together to limit water withdrawals from the region.
A month later, President Bush, in response to a question
from a Canadian reporter, appeared to vaguely suggest
that the United States might want to tap Great Lakes water
to help arid southwestern states. "Water will forever
be an issue in the U.S., particularly the western part,"
Bush noted, adding: "I look forward to discussing this
with (Canadian) Prime Minister Jean Chretien."
That was enough to set off alarms in Ottawa, prompting
Canadian Environment Minister David Anderson to snap that
any Bush-Chretien discussion on water will be "brief."
The prime minister, Anderson said, "will tell the president
that we have a policy of not exporting water, and that,
I guess, will be it."
"George W. Bush is at the door, and he wants Canada's
water" was the headline in Toronto's Globe and Mail, one
of Canada's largest national newspapers.
"Everybody now has become very cautious about even talking
about doing that because the governors of the Great Lakes
and the people of the Great Lakes states have become very
sensitive about diversion of water from the lakes,'' said
Thomas Baldini, the U.S. chairman of the International
Joint Commission, which advises the United States and
Canada on shared water resources.
"I think the Canadians are concerned for good reason,''
said global water expert Sandra Postel. "The way NAFTA
is written, if you open Canadian water resources for bulk
water sales then you are basically opening Pandora's box.
Virtually any company in the United States could decide
to go into Canada and tap their water resources for export
and for profit.''