Drain Canada Dry?

Commentary, Frontier Centre, Regulation, Role of Government, Water, Worth A Look

It was here in southern Alberta, a century ago, when Canadians first learned of U.S. plans to take our water supplies. It would be the first and last battle over fresh water the two neighbours would fight. But Canadians have worried ever since that the day will come again when Americans will come after our fresh water. And if you believe certain nationalist groups, we may be powerless to do a thing about it.

Strange, considering that Canada plainly triumphed in the St. Mary River tussle, when Montana ranchers plotted in 1901 — with Washington’s blessing — to channel water from the flush, northbound waterway, 30 kilometres east to the much drier, southbound Milk River. After Albertans threatened to dam the Milk on its brief foray north of the 49th, blocking the water from returning to Montana, the Americans settled for a joint commission governing the rivers. It let Montanans take some of the water. But Alberta ended up winning the bulk of St. Mary’s flow.

Canada, with 10 times the renewable fresh water per capita as the United States, is by global standards a water heavyweight. Though we boast of our trade muscle on energy matters, Canadians come off as positively paranoid we’re powerless to stop Americans from siphoning our precious water.

“We’ve got this national neurosis about the United States, it’s our great fear we’re going to wind up like Finland — at any moment they’re going to march over our border and take us down,” says Chris Wood, the B.C.-based author of the recently released Dry Spring: The Coming Water Crisis of North America.

The Ottawa-based Polaris Institute last week released a study warning: “It is not at all clear that either Ottawa or the provinces are in a position to deal with a challenge coming from Washington to turn on the taps for Canadian bulk water exports.” In March, Ottawa blocked a UN vote that would have declared water a human right, purportedly nervous the policy might let parched nations demand our H20.

A week ago, federal Liberal water critic Francis Scarpaleggia tabled a bill that would prohibit bulk water exports — to “guarantee Canada’s freshwater sovereignty in a world of growing water scarcity that increases the threat of future water exports.” The bill was cloaked in environmental protection language, necessary to protect ecosystems, because, Mr. Scarpaleggia believes, any outright trade ban would violate NAFTA, foiling our plans to stop the Americans.

“Politicians are always accused of taking the short view,” Mr. Scarpaleggia says. “I understand nobody’s knocking at our door just yet for our water. But someday they will and I’d like to have this law in the government’s toolbox.”

Someday is a long time. But you don’t have to look far to find Cassandras today foreboding that the end of Canada’s water sovereignty is nigh: In addition to Polaris, the Green Party, the Canadian Auto Workers Union, the Sierra Club, Oxfam Canada, the Waterkeeper Alliance and a catalogue of other groups all prophesy that Americans will inevitably drink Canada dry.

The NDP proposed a bill banning water exports years ago. And, most famously, Maude Barlow, through her Council of Canadians, has been anticipating the imminent arrival of U.S. water robber barons since the early 1990s. Last fall, Opposition leader Stephane Dion said he had inside information proving the United States and Canada were secretly negotiating water trading.

“Oh, the pressure coming from our American friends to move Canadian water to help the problems with the shortage of fresh water is very strong,” he said. The federal government called the accusation “categorically false” and seven months later, there is no evidence of these alleged talks or of any plans for bulk water exports.

There are reasons for that. Canada has existing laws making bulk water exports difficult. Federally, it’s illegal to divert large volumes from Crown watersheds. The International Joint Commission controls cross-boundary Great Lakes water. And every province, except New Brunswick, has bans on bulk water exports. That doesn’t protect us enough, worries Tony Clarke, Polaris Institute’s director. “Anywhere among the 10 provinces you could see a move in this direction [to sell water] simply because of a change in government,” he says. “Once that happens it becomes a tradable or economic good subject to the rules of NAFTA,” making it “difficult to turn off the tap once it has been turned on.”

But something like a U.S. water crisis has already begun: Recently, the U.S. government projected that 36 states will face shortages in the next five years. If Washington plans to feed its daily 24-billion-gallon water habit with Canadian H20, it would seem the time to act is now.

It hasn’t. Maybe because the question of whether free trade allows Americans to sue their way to our water is highly debatable. Canada would first have to offer bulk water for sale for any fair-trade requirements to kick in and both GATT and NAFTA allow signatories out of trade obligations to “protect human, animal or plant life or health.”

Plus, Canada, the United States and Mexico issued a joint statement upon NAFTA’s signing affirming that “nothing in the NAFTA would oblige any NAFTA Party to either exploit its water for commercial use or to begin exporting its water in any form.”

But if Canadians really want to protect their water sovereignty — and polls show a majority do– we retain that right (barring military invasion), Mr. Wood notes, whether that means fighting at trade tribunals or, in a worst-case scenario, abrogating NAFTA. It may have trade consequences, but the WTO police can’t arrest us for refusing to sell.

Realistically, though, the dry U.S. south has little interest in our water for one basic reason: Water is heavy. The cost of shipping it long distances costs more than it’s worth.

“As long as water weighs two pounds per litre and is cheaply priced, there is no profit incentive,” says Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona law and public policy professor and author of Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America’s Fresh Waters. “When water becomes US$4 a gallon, as gas is today in California, then we can have a serious discussion about this.”

Water worriers argue that, too, will happen — someday. But states have remedies before that, from conservation to desalination, already underway in coastal states. And Americans know that using NAFTA to get at Canada’s water risks exposing them to pressures from a much-thirstier Mexico. Besides, Alaska has already said it’s willing to sell water to other states (from rivers, incidentally, flowing from Canada). If it ever becomes economical, Americans have a ready seller at home.

Still, urgent appeals to Canadians’ water fears have proven “an effective fundraising device,” Mr. Wood says. Anti-globalization groups such as Ms. Barlow’s were proven wrong about economic dangers of free trade promised 20 years ago. The threat to water, with its emotional resonance, is a last chance to frighten Canadians of the perils of borderless commerce.

Though the Conservatives reaffirmed recently “fresh water is one of Canada’s greatest natural resources and our government has been clear that it is not for sale,” the growing pressure from all opposition may make it simpler to offer some merely symbolic legislation, putting the conspiracy theories to rest (Mr. Scarpaleggia hopes the Tories will adopt his bill, as they did this year with his proposal to limit phosphates in detergents).

Water “is a sexy topic; it gets people all hot and bothered,” allows one government official. Any show of resolve could have an ironic effect, though: In their quest to convince us we’re defenseless against the forces of free trade, anti-NAFTA groups may move Ottawa to remind us that when it comes to our resources, even in the free trade era, Canadians remain firmly in charge of what we sell, and to whom.