David Jones: Canada has water to spare and should look into selling it

David vs. David

Every country has them: Those inexplicable elements to which a society appears wedded to that, despite explanation, remain opaque to outside observers.

For example, Americans believe the government wants to steal guns from private citizens; we cling to the Second Amendment as Holy Writ. Canadians believe Americans want to steal their water. Canadians go into ritualized frenzies of professed fear the United States, akin to an enormous vampire, will suck them dry or, in some Dr Strangelovian manner, tap their precious bodily fluids.

The reality is Canada has the world’s greatest reserve of fresh water. It should be handled as any product – sold to the highest bidder. And, as the existential example of a renewable resource, refusing to sell water is akin to rejecting solar energy sales because the sun doesn’t shine at night.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.

Indeed, it was amusing to watch the teapot tempest when, in August 2008, a Quebec think-tank suggested the province could generate some $65 billion in gross revenue through the export of a small percentage of its renewable fresh water.

For any American, the Canadian water myth verges on the ridiculous. To be sure, there are water constraints on development, notably in California and the Southwest. However, the U.S. focuses on conservation and recycling rather than transporting vast quantities of water over thousands of miles. Indeed, the combination of engineering obstacles and gigantic costs leave those below the southern border shaking their heads at the Canadian “suck us dry” conceit.

On the other hand ...

David Kilgour: Canada's water sources aren't limitless, and we must keep what we have

Otherwise rational Canadians rhapsodize over “their” water and have reinforced the laws to prevent any bulk export of Canadian water. Although exporting water in small plastic bottles was regarded as acceptable, that approach may also be eliminated given the current green criticism of “designer water.” Of course, verbal vituperation is also one of the arrows in the anti-Americanism quiver. For the NDP and Maude Barlow/Mel Hurtig acolytes, if Canada has something, the U.S. must by definition covet it and seek to euchre Canadians out of it.

Water is not some mystic source of life to be discussed with dulcet tones of background music, but neither is it a cost-free good.

The thought that the United States would require Canadian water exports was one of the arguments against ratifying the FTA and later the NAFTA accord. That nothing of the sort has eventuated after 20-plus years of NAFTA implementation, that Canadian lakes remain pristine and rivers flow unsullied from sea to sea to sea, has not mitigated concern in the slightest. It is ideology, not logic that drives critics’ views.

The baseline reality is that all the NAFTA requires is that if Canada decides upon bulk exports of water, such exports would also available to the United States.

More seriously, what is needed is realistic appreciation of the best use of a renewable natural resource. Consequently, we need thoughtful, non-ideological reviews, studies, and professional evaluations of these resources. For example:


  • Are Great Lakes waters renewed by regular rainfall and incoming river flow and to what extent? How much of the lakes is “old” water, that is, not regularly replaced?
  • At what point could St. Lawrence River water flowing to the Atlantic be diverted to fill super tankers? What about the waters flowing out to sea in other areas of the Canadian coastlines?
  • What is the U.S./Canadian right to respective percentages of Great Lakes water with shared bilateral borders: Superior, Huron, Ontario, and Erie?
  • What is the potential market at what price for water in what sections of the world? We may come eventually to the point where water, if not as expensive as oil, may be a highly attractive commercial commodity. Do we refuse to export it regardless of price?
  • Could the United States place a massive dam at the head of Lake Michigan (totally within U.S. borders), drain it to the last drop, send its waters south, and plant crops on the lakebed?

The essential point to these questions is the need for continental agreement on water conservation with accurate pricing for residential use versus agricultural use versus industrial use. Just as there is total lifetime costing for new products, our societies need a financial appreciation of the costs of municipal water/sewerage delivery and treatment. Water is not some mystic source of life to be discussed with dulcet tones of background music, but neither is it a cost-free good. And selling the product is one element of any assessment/evaluation.

Despite 100 years of co-operation in water management (the U.S.-Canada Boundary Waters Treaty marked its centennial in 2009), its success in dispute resolution and oversight of the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Great Lakes Basin ecosystem seems peripheral to many Canadians.

Frankly, the likelihood the United States could navigate an environmental impact statement of the dimensions to bring such a water transport project to fruition is minimal at least before Arctic ice totally melts.