In the face of California’s drought, is it time to revive the discussion of bulk water exports from Canada to the US?

California is facing one of its worst droughts in history. The government is taking steps to hopefully quell the water shortage, but for the time being, the future looks rather grim for California. The measures being implemented by the state have some asking whether or not the state is really doing enough. The days of lush green lawns in the desert have come back to haunt the state. The drought wasn’t unexpected. In fact, it’s not surprising; it’s been a fact for years that this could happen. Governments and corporations of yesteryear have worked to bring another water source to the dry state, but time and time again, they’ve been met with a brick wall.

If you look back to the early 90s, California was in the midst of another water shortage. This time around, they were asking for help, and Canadian water companies were working to solve the water shortage problem. Plans soon arose that would carry Canadian water to the golden state. Canada is said to be home to more water than any other nation. What would be the harm in sending some of that water south? As it would later turn out, the public and Canadian government officials quickly saw a lot wrong with the thought of sending any amount of water south.

In early 1991, the Goleta Water District in Santa Barbara County was seeking a seven year deal for an annual supply of 7500 acre-feet (2,443,885,710 gallons) of water. A few proposals from Canadian companies came forward. Western Canada Water Enterprises Inc. planned on using an oil tanker to transport water from Link Lake, British Columbia to California. Aqua Source Ltd. And Snowcap Water had similar plans.

Soon after, these plans raised environmental concerns. Many were concerned with the impact such projects could have on the environment, and ecosystems within British Columbia. There were no case-studies of similar projects, as nothing similar had been undertaken in Canada previously. Water export licenses had been issued to various companies across the nation, but no exports had gone ahead. By the end of the decade, those licenses would be revoked in the face of a bulk water export ban. Lawsuits against the Canadian government would be filed by corporations in response to that decision, and they would later be dropped. Others had legal concerns at the time, citing the newly created free trade agreement; it was argued that the case could be made for water to be sold to the US at the same rate as what it was sold in BC, eliminating any chance for profit on any project.

Using oil tankers to transport water wasn’t the only proposal made. During the summer of 1991, another proposal came forward that looked to divert the North Thompson River in BC, which would send one million acre-feet of water to California. Through a series of diversions, the water would eventually reach the John Day Dam in Oregon, at which point the water could be sent through a pipeline to California. The energy required to send the water though the pipeline could be regenerated using hydroelectric plants. They planned on its completion by the year 2000, although the Canadian federal government would later crush their dreams through a bulk water export ban.

The 90s were a decade of abundant solutions to California’s water shortage problem, one that Canadian companies were heavily involved in. The Canadian public voiced its concerns about the environmental impact such projects could have. The issue of sovereignty also played a major role in the debate. Many believed that the water was solely Canadian water, and it should damn well stay in Canada no matter what. The Canadian federal government would reflect these attitudes by the end of the decade, by imposing a ban on bulk water exports, effectively ending any hope of one day sending water to dry California. In 2010, the federal government, led by Stephen Harper, would solidify this ban by updating it. The only water export that is legal in Canada is bottled water, since it’s considered a beverage. Its export is limited to 50,000 liters per day. Bulk water exports to the US, through the diversion of rivers, pipelines, and ships are banned under the Transboundary Water Protection Act.

The 90s weren’t the only decade that involved talk of water exports to the United States. The 1960s served as birthplace of a far more ambitious plan to send Canadian water to the United States, in hopes of deferring a future water shortage crisis for at least another hundred years.

A plan was proposed that would flood BC’s Rocky Mountain Trench. Approximately 2500 sq. miles of land would be flooded, with the water flowing south into the United States. It was called the “North American Water and Power Alliance,” and the plan envisioned it as a solution to the water shortage issue for another 100 years, benefitting Canada, the United States, and Mexico. The plan envisioned numerous projects being built in all three nations to alleviate water shortage concerns. In theory, water shortage wouldn’t have been much of an issue for the US today had this plan gone ahead. But, unlike the plans that would come about in the 90s, this one posed a huge environmental risk by flooding such a vast area. It was also costly, and would have been a loss to agriculture; as such a vast area would be under water.

The same plan also envisioned diverting the Harricanaw River in Ontario (more commonly referred to as the Harricana River today) from flowing into James Bay, to the Great Lakes, in what was called the “Grand Canal Proposal.” Aside from becoming a major water source for the US, it was also touted as a possible tourist destination as North America would be home to a new water canal. It was never built, and the Rocky Mountain Trench was never flooded due to the environmental impacts both projects posed. The immense cost, and paperwork involved also served as a deterrent for the Canadian government.

The 60s and the 90s were both decades that spawned many ambitious ideas to solve the water shortage problem in the US. Throughout the 80s, the problem was predicted to worsen well into the future, and this realization would continue into the 90s. For the Canadian public however, it remained an issue of environmental protection, and sovereignty. The plans of the 90s were at least attainable, and more realistic than the dreams of the 60s. The Canadian government has ensured that none of them will ever become reality with a ban on such exports, but with California’s current drought, you really have to wonder if Canada should have sent water south. Canada has a lot of water, maybe more than it actually needs. Would it really hurt to help our neighbors to the south? If done in a sustainable, environmentally conscious way, it may not be the worst idea in the world.

It’s all too easy to argue that the various plans proposed in the past would have only gone to keep lawns green, had they become reality. Perhaps that’s a possibility.

Today, it has become painfully obvious that it’s time for California to part ways with its unnaturally green lawns, and excess corporate use of water, and look to a future of water sustainability.

As for Canada, on a moral basis, it may not be such a bad idea to send some water south. It would have to be done in a controlled manner. Flooding the Rocky Mountain Trench was a horrible idea, but shipping water to California (or other parts of the US) may not be such a bad idea. Should Canada divert rivers and streams so water can be shipped through a pipeline to California? It could have great rewards in terms of revenue, but its environmental impact would have to be accessed before any such project went ahead. Shipping water is probably the idea that poses the least amount of risk to the environment, although it too isn’t a proposal without risks. Reducing water levels in various lakes could also have disastrous environmental effects in Canada, and would have to be the subject of study before any such project went ahead.

Those that argue in favor of the environment have a great reason to do so. British Columbia is a beautiful place. Its landscape and environment are something to be awed. It’s great to see that concern for the environment. If water were ever to be sent south of the border, it would have to be proven to be environmentally sustainable, and safe. This is where studies into such projects would come into play, to determine whether such projects would have a negative impact on the environment or not.

Profits would drive companies to build and operate such projects. It definitely has its pros and cons, but if done right, and in a way that didn’t negatively impact the environment, I would support such an endeavor to help our neighbors to the south. It would have to be done in a very calculated way, but if done right, it could be a very smart investment as well. Droughts in California do negatively impact Canadians whether they realize it or not. California produce makes it to grocery store shelves in Canada as well, and droughts will surely increase prices (as they already have). A drought in California has the potential to make the trip to the grocery store more expensive for you all the way up in Canada.

During the 90s, many feared that such projects would turn Canada into a desert to water lush golf courses in California. Canadian water would only have a significant impact if water usage in California was also sustainable. If water continued to be wasted in the face of water shipments from Canada, it may bring in profits, but in terms to quelling the water shortage in California, it would be entirely useless. Aside from the obvious green lawns, corporations are also the cause of such high water usage. Such usage in the business world would need reductions as well. Aside from what should be done on the Canadian side to ensure the plan is sound, California would also need to take steps to ensure such projects weren’t a waste of time and money. If it couldn’t be guaranteed the water would be sustainably used in California, I wouldn’t support the project, even if it could be proven to pose no environmental risk in Canada.

Maybe all of the proposals of the past were never meant to be, but as California battles this drought, and the US is predicted to see a major, long lasting drought sometime in the 21st century, Canadian water exports will surely be a topic that will have even more relevance well into the future. It’s well worth talking about, even if it doesn’t look as if it’s going to happen anytime soon. Government has ensured that reality. For the time being, desalination, coupled with smart water usage on the individual level, and in the business world probably serves as California’s best bet to deal with water shortages into the future. However, desalination is also an expensive endeavor. Could water exports from Canada be a potential solution, as many have argued in the past? Possibly. One day, it may be a reality, something that simply has to happen if the drought that is predicted does hit the US. Water exports could bring the two nations even closer together than they already are, or a lack thereof could create a rift between the two governments.  Water shortages in one part of North America have the potential to affect the entire continent. That reason alone may be good enough to one day take another serious look at water exports.

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