V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Plugging Canada's drain


Published in The Toronto Sun, Sun Media papers, July, 2008.

Part 4 of a 5-day series.

In the middle of the Arizona desert, where a merciless heat zaps away all moisture, a group of entrepreneurs plan to build a water park oasis that will make it the largest water adventure park in the world.

The specs are ambitious: Called Waveyard, the 45-hectare water park is expected to be completed by 2010 and will have the largest man-made, recirculating white water river in the world, a scuba lagoon, snorkelling, kayaking, and surf-sized, four-metre waves.

The park is expected to use 380 million litres of groundwater a year, water they say won't come from the neighbouring potable water system.

Meanwhile, the U.S. announced last year that 36 states face water shortages in the next four years.

It's this kind of immoderate squandering in the U.S. that makes them the largest per capita users of water in the world, water advocates say. And it's why Canada should close the door should the U.S. come knocking for our water, they add.

"It's not sustainable," says Maude Barlow, an internationally known water advocate and author of Blue Covenant. "I will share anything with anyone, but I won't destroy the Canadian ecology so people can have golf courses and swimming pools."

The spectre of bulk water exports to the U.S. has been a historically emotional issue for Canadians, who guard it jealously as a national heritage.

But, as discussed earlier in this series, there is a myth of water abundance in Canada. We receive the same amount of the world's renewable water supply (rain and snow) as the U.S. -- 6.5% of the global share. We don't have a large surplus to spare, experts say.

But not everyone agrees. Chris Wood, B.C.-based author of Dry Spring, describes this attitude as anti-American, anti-business and bigoted.

"We wouldn't accept that kind of (attitude) of any other ethnic group," he said in an interview. "These people are our best customers, closest neighbour, and we share the watersheds. It's completely poisonous."

Water, like the fugitive nature of air and carbon, isn't ours to horde since it's always "passing through" on its way to somewhere else, Wood says.

Besides, Wood points out the spectre of bulk water export is a moot point because of one important factor: It's too expensive.

"Water is heavy and expensive to move. To ship it in bulk is not economically viable."

It has been estimated that most large scale, export schemes would get a dime on every dollar invested. But we're already exporting "virtual" water, Wood adds, so why not sell it directly and make a profit? Virtual water is the water consumed in the making of a product. For every barrel of tarsand-derived oil, for example, we export two to 4.5 barrels of water.

"We're practically giving away our water," he says.

Why shouldn't Canada export water to the world's water poor and make some money, he asks. After all, we sell other national resources like lumber, oil and gas.

Another important consideration, he adds, is that contrary to what the water activists claim, the Americans aren't coming to us for our water.

"I have yet to find a single state that has Canada on their list as their future source of water," he says. "There is no evidence that Americans, or any branch of the U.S. is looking to us for water."

In water-parched California, the man who heads the largest bulk water supplier for municipal use in the world reassures Sun Media that he, for one, won't be coming after Canadian waters.

"We're not looking to Canada to solve our water problems. I think we need to solve them ourselves," Tim Brick said in an interview from Los Angeles.

Brick is the chairman of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides drinking water to 18 million people. His mandate is to instil a strong water conservation ethic. Last year, the utility embarked on a media blitz asking consumers to cut back on their outdoor watering and this year approved a 14% increase in water prices beginning in 2009.

"The expense of bringing water here would be astronomical. There are other steps like conservation, and better management of groundwater that would be a better approach," he says.

He speaks proudly of their record to date: The region is using the same amount of water as they did 20 years ago, despite the population growth.

So, if the largest water agency in the U.S. says they don't want our water, why all the fuss? Environment Minister John Baird has also said Canada won't engage in bulk water export. But water activists say we have no water sovereignty because of NAFTA.

Environmental and trade lawyers have been arguing for years about whether or not water, in its natural state, is considered a tradeable good.

When Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama suggested reopening the trade agreement, activists pounced on the chance to take water off the table once and for all. Once our water is traded as a commercial good, activists say we won't be able to turn off the tap -- and Quebec and Newfoundland have already expressed their interest in bulk water export.

Under NAFTA, once any volume of water leaves Canada, that volume can't be reduced unless Canada reduces our own supply proportionately. Also, Canada can't block a bid by private interests to lay claim to our water under NAFTA, critics say.

Canada's water also seems subject to multiple and confusing layers of protection through a series of agreements and pacts: There's the Boundary Waters Treaty signed in 1909, the International Joint Committee which governs U.S.-Canada water relations across the Great Lakes, and provincial legislations which pretend they have clout to prohibit bulk water removals.

But many are null and void if they don't comply with NAFTA.

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