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Turning on Canada's Tap?
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper sat down with President George W. Bush in their first White house meeting July 6th, one 'unmentionable' items on their agenda may well have been the question of bulk water exports from Canada...
Turning on Canada’s Tap?
By Tony Clarke, Polaris Institute
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper sat down with President George W. Bush in their first White House meeting July 6th, one of the ‘unmentionable ‘ items on their agenda may well have been the question of bulk water exports from Canada. After all, Bush himself raised the issue back in July, 2001 when he talked off the cuff to reporters about growing water shortages in his home state of Texas and elsewhere in the country, saying he would like to begin negotiations with Ottawa on water exports from Canada. In Texas, he said, “water is more valuable than oil.” “A lot of people don’t need it, but when you head south and west, we need it,” Bush declared, adding that he “looked forward” to discussing the matter with then Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
At the time, the reaction from Canadian officials was swift and blunt. “We’re absolutely not going to export water, period,” proclaimed David Anderson, then Canada’s environment minister. Anderson’s comment reflected what seems to be a general public consensus that water should not be treated like other natural resources [e.g. oil, gas, minerals, timber etc.] as a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market to U.S. customers. After Anderson’s reaction, the issue seemed to fade from the news headlines until former U.S. ambassador Paul Celucci revived the issue in the early stages of the 2005-6 federal election.
The question now is whether Canada’s new PM is willing to willing to put water on the table in negotiating a new relationship with the United States. Although Harper’s specific views on water exports are not known, he has called for more “economic and security integration” with the U.S., highlighting the need for a continental energy strategy that would include “a range of other natural resources.” As a new era of Canada-U.S. relations opens up, Canadians would do well to take a closer look at the forces moving behind the scenes to turn on the taps for massive water exports to the United States.
Growing American Thirst
Today, the largest world’s largest economic and military superpower, is facing the problem of acute water shortages within its own borders. Twenty-one percent of farmland irrigation in the US comes from the pumping of groundwater at rates that exceed the water’s ability to recharge. In effect, this means those aquifers that are the country’s source of freshwater are rapidly being depleted and are dying up. The lethal combination of severe droughts and dried up wells has become the plague of many US farmers. Every year now, it is estimated that more than US$400 billion is lost in America’s farmlands because of the depletion of aquifers. A prime example is the Ogallala aquifer, one of the world’s most famous underground bodies of water which is being depleted at a rate of14 times faster than Nature can restore it. It is now estimated that more than half of the water is already gone.
In California, the major aquifers are also drying up. With the Colorado River strained to the limit, the water table under California’s San Joaquin Valley has dropped nearly 10 meters in some areas during the past 50 years. In the state’s Central Valley, over use of underground water supplies has resulted in a loss of over 40 percent of the combined storage capacity of all the human made reservoirs in California. The desert regions of the American southwest --- Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico --- largely barren of water, continue to experience population growth. In Bush’s home state of Texas, water scarcity is also approaching a critical stage where cities like El Paso are expected to be dried-up by 2030. Moving further into the American Midwest, Chicago and Milwaukee could be facing severe water shortages. The huge sandstone aquifer underlying the Illinois-Wisconsin border, which supplies these two major cities with their water supplies, is currently overtaxed and may well be depleted in the near future, say scientists, unless there are significant reductions in groundwater withdrawals.
In short, the US is becoming more and more thirsty as it reaches the danger point of running out of its own freshwater sources. When the U.S. government surveyed the 50 states of the union in 2003, it found that more than two-thirds predicted they would face water shortages in one form or another over the next 10 years. Nor does the U.S. government seem prepared it confront this impending water crisis. In June 2004, the National Academies of Science and the U.S. Geological Survey reported that Washington is ill-prepared to deal with water shortages emerging across the country. NAS reports have also shown that overall federal funding for water research in the U.S. has remained stagnant for the past thirty years.
As the U.S. water crisis intensifies, one quick fix solution is to tap into what is perceived to be Canada’s considerable water wealth. According to this scenario, Canada is a giant green sponge full of freshwater lakes and rivers --- a massive reservoir of water that can be tapped to serve the insatiable thirst of people and industries in urban America. Globally speaking, Canada is ranked fourth in the world in terms of in terms of surface sources of freshwater in the form of lakes, rivers and glaciers. All it would take is the construction of a network of new dams, reservoirs, canals, tunnels, pipelines, and supertankers to transport water in bulk form from Canada to the United States.
The largest freshwater system on the planet is, of course, the Great Lakes lying between Canada and the United States, which contain no less than 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater. But, the Great Lakes have also been a dumping ground for industrial wastes, contaminating much of the lake water and ground water in the region. Indeed, the International Joint Commission, declared in its 2000 “Final Report on the Protection of Waters in the Great lakes,” that there is no surplus water in the Great Lakes and emphatically warned against any new diversions.” Moreover, scientists are now warning that drought patterns are returning to the Prairies as river systems like the South Saskatchewan, Old Man, Peace and Athabasca show signs of drying up. And these re-emerging drought patterns are bound to intensify with global warming. Already, the glacier that feeds the Bow River in Alberta is melting so quickly that there may be no water left in it 50 years from now.
Although there is no doubt that Canada is blessed by Nature’s endowment with numerous freshwater lakes and rivers, it should also be noted that 60 percent of our rivers flow north into the Hudson Bay and the Arctic region. As a result, 60 percent of Canada’s freshwater flows in the opposite direction of the U.S. and is largely inaccessible. Even so, say politicians, engineers and economists on both sides of the border, there are ways of overcoming these obstacles through new technology and investment.
Mega Export Schemes
Over a past four decades, a series of mega diversion schemes have been planned for massive bulk water transfers from Canada to the U.S. In retrospect, these mega projects can be categorized in terms of three major water corridors.
Western Corridor: The centerpiece of the western water corridor flowing from Canada to the U.S. is the North American Water and Power Alliance. NAWAPA was originally designed to bring bulk water from Alaska and northern British Columbia for delivery to 35 U.S. States. By building a series of large dams, the northward flow of the Yukon, Peace, Liard and a host of other rivers [Tanana, Copper, Skeena, Bella Coola, Dean, Chilcotin, and Fraser ] would be reversed to move southward and pumped into the Rocky Mountain Trench where the water would be trapped in a giant reservoir approximately 800 kilometers long. A canal would then be built to take the water southward into Washington state where it would be channeled through existing canals and pipelines to supply freshwater for customers in 35 states. The annual volume of water to be diverted through the NAWAPA project is estimated to be roughly equivalent to the average total yearly discharge of the entire St. Lawrence River system in Canada.
Central Corridor: Another water corridor consists of a series water diversions schemes proposed from the Northwest territories through the Prairies into the U.S. In 1968, the Washington State Resource Center developed plans for the Central North American Water Project [CeNAWAP]. The plan calls for a series of canals and pumping stations linking Great Bear Lake and Great Slave Lake in the NWT to Lake Athabaska and lake Winnipeg and then the Great Lakes for bulk water exports to the U.S. A variation on the CeNAWAP is the Kuiper Diversion Scheme which proposes to link the major western rivers into a mega water diversion scheme involving the Mackenzie, the Peace, the Athabasca, North Saskatchewan, Nelson and Churchill river systems. Both the Kuiper and the CeNAWAP are designed to transport water for export to the U.S.
Eastern Corridor: the principal eastern water corridor is known as the GRAND Canal --- the Great Recycling And Northern Development Canal. As originally conceived, the GRAND Canal plans called for the damming and rerouting of northern river systems in Quebec in order to bring freshwater through canals down into the Great Lakes where it would be flushed into the American Midwest. A dike would be built across James Bay at the mouth of Hudson Bay [whose natural flow is northward], thereby turning the bay into a giant fresh water reservoir of about thirty thousand square miles from James Bay and the 20 rivers that flow into it. Through a system of dikes, canals, dams, power plants and locks, the water would then be diverted from the reservoir and rerouted southward down a 167 mile canal, at a rate of about 282,000 liters a second into two of the Great Lakes --- Lake Superior and Lake Huron. From there, the water would be flushed through canals into markets in both the American Midwest and U.S. Sun Belt.
There are, of course, multiple reasons why none of these massive water corridors have been built in the intervening decades since they were first proposed. One reason is that America’s thirst has been temporarily quenched by internal bulk water transfers within the U.S. A second reason is the problem of securing sufficient capital to pay for highly expensive bulk water export schemes like those described above, and whether this should be private or public investment. A third reason may also have been the need for new or improved engineering technologies required for some of the more geographically challenging projects.
Yet, underlying all these reasons is the question of political will. According to opinion polls, most Canadians remain skeptical about selling our water to the U.S. In a 2002 survey conducted by the Centre for Research and Information on Canada, 69 percent were opposed to bulk water exports. Three years before this poll was taken, the House of Commons actually passed a motion [introduced by the New Democrats] calling on the federal government to ban the export of water. In response, the Liberal government of the day refused to issue a ban on water exports contending it would contravene Canada’s obligations under NAFTA, and, instead, worked with the provinces to develop a Canada-wide Water Accord aimed at discouraging bulk water exports. Yet, precisely because of NAFTA, which prohibits countries from putting a ban or quota on the exports of their natural resources, the water accord is largely ineffective.
Which brings us back to Stephen Harper. Will he and his government be the ones who finally muster the political will to give Washington the green light and permit bulk water takings? Is this the price that Harper is prepared to pay, on behalf of Canadians, to seal a new grand bargain with the U.S. just as Brian Mulroney did when he gave away Canada’s energy resources in the eleventh hour of the free trade negotiations?