A Visionary’s Epiphany About Water

Commentary, Water, Frontier Centre

It doesn’t take much to set Tom Kierans on fire.

Just add water and stir.

The renowned engineer – now well into his 97th year – was sitting in his St. John’s home last week when word came that a Montreal think tank was going to solve North America’s impending water crisis.

According to a report prepared for the Montreal Economic Institute by engineer Pierre Gingras, it would be possible to dam three major rivers in the James Bay area, flood more than 1,000 square kilometres of Northern Quebec each spring and then strategically release the water so it can be pumped to the Ottawa River and end up in Montreal. It would improve the port, produce $1-billion worth of power – and mean as much as $20-billion a year in water sales to the parched United States.

Been there, done that, says Tom Kierans – and did it all a lot better and smarter.

It is now 50 years since Kierans – who was also involved in the Upper Churchill hydroelectric project and Prince Edward Island’s Confederation Bridge – dreamed up his GRAND Canal idea.

Kieran’s Great Recycling and Northern Development Canal would, instead of damming the rivers and causing widespread flooding, allow the waters to enter shallow James Bay. He would, however, build a dam system somewhat based on Holland’s Zuiderzee Works, ensuring that the freshwater is not lost to the sea but is trapped where it can then be channelled down the Ottawa River and even across Northern Ontario to the Great Lakes basin.

Kierans estimates there is almost two times the amount of freshwater flowing into James Bay as there is flowing through the Great Lakes into the St. Lawrence River.

He got Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa and future prime minister John Turner to agree with him, got the support of heavyweights in the Ontario government and on Bay Street, but the project was always just out of reach – both financially and imaginatively.

In his opinion, people just didn’t get it.

Kierans had an epiphany about water in 1933 when he and another McGill student decided to pan for gold in British Columbia rather than look for jobs that didn’t exist. He was shocked by the Prairie Dust Bowl and decided, during a train stop in Saskatoon, “that I would devote the rest of my life to solving the water problem for North America.” He never figured that he’d be heading toward 100 with still no solution in sight.

He studied various projects around the world – in China, Holland, California – and concluded that diversion was the wrong way to go as it robbed people downstream of their water and created problems with flooding.

“We were dead against that,” he says.

“There’s a fantastic difference” between his 50-year-old idea and today’s suggestion from the Montreal Economic Institute. His involves no flooding and, he says, would end up improving the commercial fisheries potential of Canada’s northern waters.

Gingras, on the other hand, says Kieran’s GRAND Canal would cost 10 times the price tag of the Montreal suggestion, a calculation Kierans disputes.

“My project is entirely different,” says Kierans. It’s very hard to tell people you can send water to the United States and still have more water in Canada, but that’s the way it would be. There is a way to get water from Canada to the United States – and at the same time increase the freshwater here.”

Kierans, who thinks he was an environmentalist long before the word was even coined, has always come up hard against the environmentalists, but he says it’s simply because they cannot wrap their minds around his very simple notion.

“I don’t want to fight Maude Barlow,” he says, mentioning the best known of those who are against such grandiose water schemes, “I want to convert her!”

Kierans still fights for his plan, joined by public-policy analyst Jack Biddell, former president of the prestigious Clarkson Gordon accounting firm. “My contribution is to show government how to finance it,” says 92-year-old Biddell from his Toronto home. “It wouldn’t cost us a cent. The United States will pay for it. There will be enough freshwater for both. There are no downsides for Canada.”

Kierans figures that before this century is out, freshwater in North America will reach such a crisis state – drought, forest fires, irrigation – that Canada will be forced to reach an agreement with the United States.

Otherwise, he says, “They’ll just take it.

“We’d be crazy to fight. When you fight someone 10 times bigger than you, you use your head, not your fists.”

What water in the 21st century needs, Kierans says, is what water in the 20th century found in Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when there were huge projects involving the Tennessee Valley and the Colorado and Columbia rivers.

“We need another FDR,” Kierans says. “There’s a plum for the picking for either [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper or [Opposition Leader Michael] Ignatieff. This has got to be done, and it will be done because it has to be.

“But it won’t be easy. People will not believe you. You have to be prepared to take criticism for it.

“I know, because I’ve been accused of selling Canada down the river – even when the truth is exactly the opposite.”