Dec 182018

A few weeks ago, Gerry White slipped into the pilot’s seat of his helicopter and took off for a remote lake in Newfoundland.

He flies there a couple of times a year, sometimes to salmon fish in the area, but often just to glimpse the business venture that never came to be.

A dozen years ago, Mr. White’s proposal to annually withdraw one-quarter of Gisborne Lake’s water and pipe it to a harbour for export via tankers was quashed. The plan was one of a handful in the 1990s that touched off intense national wrangles over whether Canada should treat its water like other tradable natural resources, such as trees, coal and petroleum.

The answer then from most Canadians was a resounding no, and federal and provincial politicians took heed.

Today, as federal politicians fan out across the country to wage an election campaign, there is little appetite to reignite a debate on water exports, as was suggested by former prime minister Jean Chrétien last week. Mr. White, though, maintains it’s only a matter of time before Canada begins trading water.

“There will be a day,” said the long-time Newfoundland land developer and construction entrepreneur. “It will eventually come because it’s needed.”

Despite persistent public opposition, the export debate has never entirely receded in Canada. At an international water conference in Toronto last week, Mr. Chrétien – whose government pushed in 1999 for a prohibition on bulk water trade – suggested a new national conversation on the matter is needed, noting the country exports oil and gas. On which side of the debate he would stand, Mr. Chrétien said he doesn’t know.

“When you look at the debate, countries who are lacking water are next to countries that have water. Imagine the difficulties of this problem,” the long-time federal leader told reporters. “It’s why some people say that there might be war over water in the future.”

Canada, of course, lies next to a country whose economy is the largest in the world and whose population is 10 times greater than ours. Parts of the United States have struggled with intermittent water shortages for decades.

In once-booming Las Vegas, for instance, more than $150-million (U.S.) has been doled out over the past 12 years in rebates to encourage businesses and residents to rip out their water-thirsty lawns. In central and southern Florida last week, officials declared a water shortage after one of the driest winters on record; residents have been ordered to limit their outdoor water use.

Canada, on the other hand, is considered rich in H{-2}O, containing 6.5 per cent of the world’s renewable fresh water. However, some regions, such as southern Alberta and the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, grapple with supply strains.

Proposals to transfer water to the U.S. from Canada stretch back to the 1950s. One early plan suggested damming northern James Bay to divert water through a network of canals to the Great Lakes and eventual transfer south of the border.

Canadians’ resistance to exporting water isn’t the only thing that has stopped these schemes. The infrastructure required to collect, transport and handle a liquid denser than light crude oil is extremely costly. The estimated price tag of the James Bay project was $100-billion.

With Canada’s lakes and rivers seemingly off limits to large exports, Alaska has become the staging area for water entrepreneurs. The state is the only American jurisdiction that allows bulk exports, opening its waterways in 1992. Of the eight applications received by the state, only one has been approved, but it’s unclear when or even if exports will flow from Blue Lake reservoir.

Alaska businessman Terry Trapp, one of the bid’s proponents, said negotiations are continuing with potential customers in China and the Middle East. Many years after the process began, the cost of infrastructure remains a major obstacle.

“It sounds like a simple thing, but it’s something that has never been done before,” said Mr. Trapp, who owns a water-bottling company. “In terms of the countries that need [water] most don’t have the infrastructure in place.”

British Columbia NDP MP Peter Julian has a few words of advice to Americans who might still be eyeing Canada’s fresh water: Look to conserve.

“We’re seeing shortages across the United States because they don’t have an effective water stewardship policy in place,” said Mr. Julian, the party’s international trade critic. “To say that allowing companies to sell water is going to fix that or in any way help the current situation would be foolish.”

In Canada, MPs of all political stripes are in no mood to entertain water exports. Mr. Chrétien’s call for a debate was essentially rejected by the NDP, the federal Conservative government, and the party he led for nearly 13 years, the Liberals. All said they oppose large water exports.

“The vast, vast majority of Canadians are against the idea of exporting our water in bulk,” said Quebec Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia, noting most of the nation’s renewable water flows north, away from large population centres. “It could cause irreparable damage to ecosystems. Moving water around brings invasive species from one basin into another.”

Mr. Scarpaleggia, the party’s water critic, said Canada should instead look to export its scientific and technological expertise to developing countries coping with water scarcity – a growing problem in many regions of the world, particularly the Middle East and North Africa.

Last year, the Harper government introduced a bill designed to strengthen existing protections against bulk water removal, though some critics contended it had loopholes. That bill, however, was never debated in Parliament and is one of several pieces of legislation that died on the order paper because of the election call.

As the international panel on water conflicts neared an end last Tuesday in Toronto, Mr. Chrétien made note of the contentious proposal to export water from Newfoundland’s remote Gisborne Lake. Mr. Chretien, who was prime minister at the time of the proposal, recalled he was shocked by Canadians’ emotional opposition to the trade plan.

“Whenever we have a question on water it’s always a huge controversy,” he told the audience of leading water experts and policy-makers.

“But when you look at the reality, here we have a lot of water,” Mr. Chrétien added, before posing this question: “Are we able to share this benefit we’re having that others don’t have?”

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