Water: The Sellout That Could Spell The End Of Canada

WALTER STEWART March 1 1970

Water: The Sellout That Could Spell The End Of Canada

WALTER STEWART March 1 1970

ONE MONDAY EVENING in 1979, Mrs. Jessica Johnson, suburban Winnipeg housewife, steps up to her sinkful of dirty dishes, sighs and turns on the water. The tap gives a tentative gurgle, one liquid drop appears, hangs, quivers and falls to the soiled dishes below. Then nothing. “Damn it to hell,” says Mrs. Jessica Johnson, suburban Winnipeg housewife, “the bloody water is shut off again.” At the heart of Canada, the richest nation in the world in water resources, there is no way for her to do her dishes; but that same day nine billion gallons of Canadian water cross the U.S. border to serve the farms, factories and cities of the American southwest.

On January 13, 1981, the directors of a manufacturing company meet in Regina to discuss the proposed opening of a new plant on the prairies. It is decided to drop the project, because there might not be enough water available to run the plant. The diversion tunnels carrying Canadian water to the U.S. are too far away for ready access; besides, the water is already spoken for — in the U.S.

On September 6, 1983, the President meets with a small group of advisers in the White House to discuss an urgent matter. The coming elections in British Columbia look likely to return a socialist government, which might be hostile to the U.S., might even want to interfere with the massive water-diversion systems on which the western states have come to depend. What should the President do? Opinion is divided. Some advisers feel that any attempt to influence the election will backfire, others that a little discreet lobbying might turn the trick. One aide, quickly shouted down, suggests, “If necessary, we should take the damn army in there, and show the damn Canadians what's what.” No decision is reached, but the President closes the meeting on an ominous note. “Anybody who thinks this country will stand idly by while our water is cut off,” he says, “has another think coming.”

Fantasy?

Certainly.

Preposterous!

Perhaps.

It could never happen!

Oh, no?

Already, water shortages have turned off taps in Metro Toronto (in July 1969); already, the problem of adequate supplies for industry on the prairies is causing concern; already, Canada is drifting toward the export of water to the U.S., with everything that implies for the interlinking of the two countries — and everything that implies is a very great deal indeed.

This is not because there is a government policy to sell our resources to the Americans, but because there is no policy at all on that subject, and no haste to develop one. The federal government has been aware of the issue for more than

five years; it was on September 2, 1964, in the House of Commons, that Arthur Laing (then Northern Affairs Minister, now Public Works Minister) described water export as “probably the greatest issue that will confront Canadians in the next several decades.”

Apparently the government hasn’t felt confronted, though; when I recently asked the Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources, J. J. Greene, whether Canada should or would sell water to the U.S., he replied, “This precise issue hasn’t come up . . . There is no policy ... I haven’t the information on which to base a decision.”

If the precise issue hasn’t come up, it should; if there is no policy, it should be developed; if information is lacking, it should be sought, for in the five years since Laing made his statement the question of water export has moved from the world of dreams to that of practical politics; there is a good chance it will be settled while our government is still telling us there is nothing to discuss.

Everything I have said so far will be denied in Ottawa and Washington, where the official view is that the U.S. has never, formally, asked to buy Canadian water, and we have never, formally, offered to sell it; so why worry? That official view needs to be put into perspective, and to do that I have to do something I don’t like to do — break an off-the-record confidence.

‘Once we start exporting water, can we stop? Would the U.S. just say, “Do what you like”? Not bloody likely.

Go back to 1964. At that time, an American engineering firm proposed a $ 100-billion plan (which I’ll describe later) to draw off Canadian water for U.S. use. The plan was called NAWAPA — the North American Water And Power Alliance — and it provoked heated discussion in Canada. Northern Affairs Minister Laing set forth the government view in a tough, pull-no-punches speech at Edmonton on October 24, 1964, in which he declared: “We deny categorically that there is anything like a continental resource in respect of water.” The subject seemed closed.

Not long after, I went to call on a cabinet member vitally concerned with water, and he reaffirmed the government stand. However, after I had put away my notebook and was about to leave his office, he said, “You should know, for your own information, that something like NAWAPA is not merely feasible, it’s inevitable.” When I asked why, then, we seemed to be repudiating it, he bobbed his head sagely and said, “We are establishing a bargaining position, and the best bargaining position is to say ‘No.’ ”

The cabinet minister who made that statement was Arthur Laing.

Are we still establishing a bargaining position? I don’t know. J. J. Greene says not, and top officials in his department say that if Canada ever sells water to the U.S. it will be only after we are sure our own needs have been met for the foreseeable future. Just the same, there is no policy either for or against water export, and there are a number of signs that, yes, if the Americans want our water, they can have it:

□ In 1964, the Western Water Development Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate came out flatly for the purchase of Canadian water. Senator Frank Moss of Utah, who chaired that committee, told me recently, “I am impressed by activity on your side of the border,” and, “It is my opinion the prospects are much improved.”

□ A vast array of plans, projects, schemes, concepts and proposals aimed at moving our water to the U.S. has blossomed on both sides of the border. None of these has received government approval, but one of them, the Central North American Water Project, is the brainchild of E. Roy Tinney, Acting Director of the Policy and Planning Branch of our Department of Energy. Tinney’s proposal was made before he joined the department.

□ Water importation has been taken under study by two key U.S. policy groups,

the National Water Commission in Washington and the Western States Water Council in Salt Lake City, Utah.

□ While there have been no government-to-government talks on water, exchanges at the unofficial level are frequent. For instance, Lewis G. Smith, a Denver engineer with an imaginative proposal for tapping northern water, flew to the Yukon at the request of Commissioner James Smith to explain his concept to the Territorial Council, and Jay Bingham, Executive Director of the Western States Water Council, flew to Ottawa to confer with our experts.

□ Last December, Energy Minister Greene met with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel to explore a “continental approach” to energy resources, an approach Greene told reporters he found “most attractive.” Let’s be clear: a continental approach to resources does not mean Canada and the U.S. sharing North America’s bounty; it means our selling the U.S. our oil, gas, hydro and, eventually, water. Greene said water had not been included in the discussion, although hydro-electric power had, but it doesn't take much imagination to see that part of any energy-resource sales packages will be our most precious resource — water.

There is nothing wrong with any of these exchanges, but before they harden into decisions, Canadians should be drawn into the debate; we must know what we are likely to be asked for and why, and what the long-term results may be.

The western and southwestern U.S. face a critical water shortage. A generally dry climate and a rate of population growth greater than the national average are pressing on inadequate reserves. Already, Arizona uses three million acrefeet of water more every year than it receives in rain, snow and river-flow (an acre-foot is the amount of water that will cover one acre to a depth of 12 inches; roughly, 326,000 gallons). The deficiency is met by “mining” underground supplies from a water table that is sinking at a rate of 20 feet per year. In Utah, according to Jay Bingham, of the Western States Water Council, “the lack of water has slowed our development to the point where we have had to resort to cannibalization. When the Geneva Steel plant went in at Provo, we got water for it by taking 1,500 acres of irrigated farmland out of production.” The Colorado River, chief source of supply for the southwest, is so heavily used that virtually none of it ever reaches the Gulf of California.

If today’s situation is bad, tomorrow's prospects are worse. The 17 western states, whose population now stands at 43 million, are expected to contain 108million people by the year 2000. There will not be enough water to service them. The Western Water Development Subcommittee reported: “This water crisis is a problem of serious and far-reaching implications. It will grow steadily worse until it reaches alarming proportions in the years 1980 and 2000.”

There are a number of ways in which the U.S. could meet western water problems. Current supplies could be cleaned up, redistributed and reused; these steps might not provide a permanent solution, but at least they would buy time. Desalting ocean water is another technique that might be tried; so is weather modification — seeding clouds to produce rain. But weather modification has not yet proved to be practical; desalinization is enormously expensive and has never been undertaken on anything like the scale that would be required. How much simpler, how much more natural, to look north, where water abounds, north where the stuff flows by the trillions of gallons, untasted and untouched, into the sea. North to Canada.

We have more water per capita than any nation in the world. Our freshwater supply has been estimated at anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of all the fresh water on the planet, and much of this huge volume spills unused into the oceans off our north and northwest coasts. Why not turn this northward flow back south and put it to work for the Americans, thus earning their undying gratitude, to say nothing of a fast buck?

Many schemes have been formulated to this end. The first and most famous was NAWAPA, unrolled to a deafening beat of public-relations’ drums in 1964. NAWAPA is a proposal to block off parts of north-flowing Canadian and Alaskan rivers and to pump the water 1,000 feet up through huge pipelines to the Rocky Mountain trench, a 500-milelong natural gorge containing the Columbia, Fraser and Kootenay Rivers. From here, the water would spill eastward across the Canadian prairies to the Great Lakes, southward across the American drylands to Mexico. Hydro generated along the system would provide the push to lift the water where it was needed, and a handsome surplus to sell at a profit.

The scheme had the blessing of the U.S. Senate subcommittee, but its size, complexity and the hard sell that surrounded its launching caused Canadian politicians to shy away. Although it called for the use of less than one fifth of the northflowing streams, the principal fact that struck Canadians about NAWAPA was that it turned our water into an American resource. Government reaction, as I have already indicated, combined public disapproval and private interest, but the plan has progressed no further than the drawing board.

Alex Davidson, Assistant Deputy Minister of the Water Branch in the Department of Energy, does not expect NAWAPA to be built, but he does expect that water export will take place, beginning with small diversions and working up to larger ones. For one of the effects of the U.S. proposal was to spawn a series of alternative plans, sons of NAWAPA. One of the least serious of these was a flat offer from Governor Ronald Reagan of California to trade us a university for some water; one of the most serious was that put forward by Lewis Smith of Denver, a water engineer with experience in the U.S., Pakistan, Ghana and Korea. Smith’s plan would tap the Mackenzie River basin by turning the Liard River and sending it south; it would provide 40-million acre-feet of water, largely through existing channels.

But whether this scheme or some other is settled on, the point for Canadians is that our experts expect, one day, to see one of these plans come to life. What will happen when it does?

For one thing, Canada will make a great deal of money. No price has ever been put on water, because it has never been sold, but it is bound to be high. There will also be billions of dollars in construction costs and power sales, and whatever benefits we are able to wring out of water moving across our territory to the U.S.

A second result of any major water export will be to open areas in both Canada and the U.S. to new development. This development will be more important in the U.S. than in Canada, obviously, but the benefits to be gained from leading water across the prairies or flushing out the polluted Great Lakes should not be underestimated.

A third result, and the one that should cause Canadians concern, will be to link our resources irrevocably to American needs. Export is a tap that, once turned on. could never be shut off again.

Without ever using the phrase “dogin-the-manger,” Senator Frank Moss of Utah hints that for Canada to hoard un-

developed supplies the U.S. needs is somehow unfair. “Frankly,” he says, “there is a moral issue involved. Projecting ourselves ahead at the rate of population growth we are going to see, you would have actual privation in some areas, while in others [i.e., Canada] water is literally going to waste. And that begins to border on the moral factor.”

Frankly, 1 can’t see that morality has anything to do with it. If Americans were dying of thirst, we would have no choice; but our water will not slake American throats, it will drive American factories. What is at stake is the speed and direction of U.S. development, and it is not moral to put that development ahead of our own; it is just plain stupid. “The strongest argument opponents [of diversion] have,” says Alex Davidson, “is when they ask us to prove that 200 years from now we won’t need the water back. It can’t be proved.”

Americans already own too much of Canada. They own most of our manufacturing and nearly all of such resource-based industries as mining and petroleum. No other industrialized nation has ever been penetrated so massively by another. What is more and what is worse, the U.S. firms that dominate our economy march to drums beaten in Chicago, New York and Washington, not in Ottawa. What would happen if a difference of opinion arose over the development of a U.S.-controlled water diversion scheme? Would the Americans say, “Well, it’s your water, do what you like with it”? Not bloody likely.

Another factor. If a large area of the U.S. became dependent on our water, the temptation to interfere in our domestic politics to safeguard that supply would be very great. And the U.S. track record on intervention, from Santo Domingo to Saigon (and, according to former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, even to Ottawa) has not been reassuring.

I am not suggesting here that the U.S. is engaged in an evil plot to snatch away our sovereignty. For decades, American companies have been invited, even begged, to plunder our resources. We sell, and they buy, and if our nationhood goes into the bargain that is our affair, not theirs. When we shriek that we are being savaged against our will, we are like a girl who hurls herself to the ground, hikes up her skirts and screams, “Rape!” If the process is to stop, it is we who must stop it, by ordering our own future rather than meekly accepting theirs.

It is not enough simply to say “not now” on water export. As the need grows in the west and southwest, as economic and political pressure mounts in Washington and Ottawa, the vacuum created by our lack of policy will be filled — by the U.S. if not by us. Americans will not always be satisfied with the answer they have been getting since 1964, the answer that we are still counting our water, and will they please come back later. “I won’t say you are stalling,” says Utah’s Senator Frank Moss, “but if it goes on much longer, some people will say that.”

We’re not stalling; we really don’t know how much water we have or how much we may need, and we’re not anxious to spend the money to find out. Energy Minister Greene explains, “With the current pressure on the Canadian tax dollar, the question of whether or not we have water to spare is not likely to receive quick attention.”

That won’t do. Canada must begin, now, to develop a policy on water export, a policy that acknowledges that we have a surplus but aims to make that surplus work for Canada, not the U.S. Unless we plan to develop our water resources in our own national interest, we will find, as we found with oil and nickel and iron ore, that someone else is willing to develop — and own — them for us. If capital is required from the U.S. — and it will be — it should cross the border as loans, not equity; as bonds, not stocks. If water is to be sold to the U.S. — and it will be — such sales should be made only after the last potential drop of development has been siphoned off in Canada.

It will not do to say, as our government has been saying, that we will develop a policy when the time comes. The time is now. If we wait much longer there is a good chance that our development, our prosperity, our sovereignty will disappear one dusty day down an American drain.