- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2007

TORONTO — With drought and rapid population growth straining resources in the U.S. Southwest, it’s not surprising that some Americans see Canada’s abundant fresh water as a “continental resource.” But Canadians fear if left unchecked, the United States will drink Canada dry.

Though diverting Canadian rivers is not on any official agenda, whenever Americans like Paul Cellucci, former U.S. ambassador to Canada, suggest this might be a solution to America’s water woes, Canadians of all stripes go apoplectic.

“Once we start selling our water and something goes wrong, how do we turn around and say, ‘We don’t have enough and we want it back?’ ” asked Nathan Taylor, 32.

This is the question that boils Canadians about mass water sales to the United States.

Scott MacKay, president of Winnipeg-based Probe Research, said he was startled by the results when he polled the public on the issue last year.

Asked whether they thought Canada should try to cash in by selling water to the United States or hold back for fear of losing control of a vital resource, 74 percent of Canadians opposed water sales.

“That’s unequivocal as far as public opinion goes,” Mr. MacKay said, adding that those with no opinion registered at a minuscule 3 percent.

By some accounts, Canada holds an estimated 21 percent of the world’s fresh water, including its share of the Great Lakes. But that figure is misleading. Most of Canada’s water is locked up in glaciers and most of the remaining fresh water flows uselessly into the Arctic Ocean, far from southern population centers.

“That leaves about 2.6 percent for Canadians, and that means there is no excess water in Canada for export,” said Maude Barlow, chairwoman of the Council of Canadians lobby group and author of “Blue Covenant — The Fight for the Right to Water.”

Canadian water diversion plans have been floating around since the 1960s. In a report prepared this year for policy-makers in the United States, Canada and Mexico, author Armand B. Peschard-Sverdrup of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies argued that fresh water should be considered a continental resource, not a national one.

As supplies of fresh water run out in rivers, lakes, basins, aquifers and watersheds, Mr. Peschard-Sverdrup wrote, North American policymakers must look to water transfers and “artificial diversions of fresh water.”

Shortly after leaving his post as U.S. ambassador to Canada, former Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci made waves in Canada by suggesting water was just another salable resource.

Canada is already diverting water for sale to the United States in the form of electricity, Mr. Cellucci said, referring to hydroelectric dams in northern Quebec and Manitoba that sell their excess power to nearby states.

Mr. MacKay noted that one-third of Canada’s economy is tied to exports, and 80 percent of those exports go to the United States.

If the U.S. economy is hit because of water shortages, “it would obviously hurt Canada’s economy. So, over time it could be in Canada’s interest to look at ways to address the severe droughts in North America,” he said.

Apart from public opinion, there are huge practical obstacles to any large-scale attempt to send water south.

River diversions attempted by the old Soviet Union had disastrous ecological results with very little payoff, said Bob Johnson of the U.S. Geological Survey. While the enormous cost of such projects could be reduced by channeling water through existing or new pipelines, jurisdictional and legal entanglements could tie up such efforts up for decades.

In Canada, as in the United States, water is mainly controlled by states and provinces, not the national governments, making international agreements problematic. Some Canadian provinces have already passed laws banning bulk water sales.

Even within the United States, states within the Great Lakes watershed have been notoriously stingy about sharing the area’s water with other Americans.

Ms. Barlow argued that the better solution was for both countries to manage their own resources better.

“Thirty-six U.S. states are facing some level of water shortage and the Southwest is facing its worst drought in 500 years,” yet states like Nevada are developing one acre of land for human use every two minutes, she said. “That’s unsustainable.”

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