Canadians worrying about US water appropriation, wtf?

Posted in Canadian life, Politics at 11:35 pm by ducky

I am baffled by a concern that seems endemic in Canada: that the US is going to steal Canadian water.  The way they talk about it, it’s almost like they think there are already secret contingency plans drawn up that one more dry season in California will trigger.

This seems totally preposterous to me:

  • I have never heard anyone in the US talk about routing Canadian water to the US.  I remember about ten or twenty years ago, hearing people talk about a canal to Oregon, to the Columbia river, but it wasn’t something that people were taking seriously.  It was sort of like how in the late seventies there were people talking about building space colonies.  There were a few people thinking about the theoretical possibility, but there wasn’t any real thought that they were practical.
  • Which states might run out of water?  Let’s suggest California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.  States in the South.   Where is Canada?  Way way north.  Where is the closest water to California?  Oregon.  Don’t need to go any farther.  Where is the closest water to Texas?  The Mississippi.  Don’t need to go any farther.  What is the easiest water to get to from Arizona and New Mexico?  Probably the Mississippi again.  Maybe you’d object that the Mississippi water isn’t very nice by the time it gets to Louisiana.  Maybe it is, but if they are out of water, they can’t be that choosy.  The next place they could look would be Lake Michigan; you don’t have to go over any mountains and you don’t have to cross any international borders.
  • Why should the Canadians worry about water when they could worry about oil instead?  The US has a history of belligerency related to oil; I don’t know of any US belligerency related to water.
    • One Canadian, in response to that question, said “Yeah, but we already sell the oil.” Yeah, but Canada could sell the water, too. And Canada has a lot more water than it has oil.

So I find it a very odd concern. I am not suggesting that Canadians should think of the US as an entirely and always consistently benevolent country. I’m sure there are things Canadians should be nervous about. But water? That is so far down on the list of things that I would worry about that I find it very odd.

To be fair, I also have heard a man from Michigan be concerned about California stealing Michigan’s water.  (He went on an extended rant about how people shouldn’t live in places that required importing large quantities of natural resources.  I wonder how he would enjoy winter in Michigan without large imports of fossil fuels.)  Maybe they got this idea from the Canadians.


  1. opendna said,

    December 11, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    Some context for Canadians’ concerns about their water:

    Water Exports and the NAFTA, David Johansen, Law and Government Division, Government of Canada, March 8 1999
    Selling Canada’s water, CBC News Online, August 25, 2004
    Canada: Losing Water Through NAFTA, Stephen Leahy, Centre for Research on Globalisation, September 23, 2007

    The concern is that if water becomes a trade good under NAFTA and/or becomes a private property for American investors then American interests will be privileged over Canadian consumers. Once water exports start, it is not clear what conditions would have to be met in order to decrease or stop exports (national emergency, maybe). A drought could be created in Canada by American investors cutting production while US customers enforced their rights to uninterrupted supply – NAFTA would clearly privilege American consumers of Canadian water over Canadian consumers.

    If this were all a potential fiction (see James Bond: Quantum of Solace) that would be one thing, but we have examples of where it has already happened and the results: The (IMF-enforced) privatization of water in Latin America (see Bolivia) has been a boon to foreign investors and a disaster for locals.

  2. ducky said,

    December 11, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    I *still* don’t get it. The first link, you mentioned says
    “Water in its natural state is not covered by the NAFTA, the FTA, the GATT, or any other trade agreement. Lakes, rivers, or aquifers are simply not goods or products, any more than are the fish swimming in them or the oil and gas trapped under them.”

    If you put it in a tank, it becomes a good. But to get real, serious amounts of water diverted, you need to divert a river, and rivers and aquifers are not goods. OIl in barrels is a good; the tar sands in the ground are not.

    It costs money to put water into bottles or tanks and ship it miles away. If American consumers are stupid enough to pay large sums of money for bottled water shipped thousands of miles, then — to some extent — I say let them! Yes, there is a global cost to the energy consumed, but I would rather they ship the water from Canada to the US than from e.g. Switzerland or Fiji to the US.

    I also don’t understand how the US consumers would get the water advantageously over the Canadian consumers. If water is at all like in the US, some of the rights are owned privately but the bulk is owned by municipalities. The governments can elect not to sell it, just like Canada is not obliged to grant logging rights to public land. Meanwhile, if an Albertan cow farmer decides to sell his/her water rights to Desani instead of watering cows with it, fine. The same amount of water comes out of the river, but it goes into a truck instead of a cow. I’m okay with that. (I don’t think that the amount removed from the ecological water cycle is at all significant compared to the amount of water used in agriculture.)

    What I read about the Bolivian privatization wasn’t about shipping water from Bolivia to elsewhere, it was about a messup privatizing the local water distribution (and presumably also wastewater treatment) utility. This is very different. If you have other links, I’d be happy to look at them.

    Again, I look to oil. NAFTA hasn’t make oil unavailable to Canadians; the recent spike in oil prices had to do with the demand being higher than the supply — on a world-wide level. I never heard Canadians say, “That oil should be going to Canadians!” I heard more discussion about how the high price of oil was a *benefit* for Canada.