November 1, 1994
A new book from a conservative think-tank, the Fraser Institute, overflows with essays by prominent water experts promoting the sale of Canadian water to the United States. A recent cover story in Financial Post Magazine boldly declares “Why We Should Sell Our Water to America.” The World Rivers Review last year stated that a “thirty year-old plan to send wild Canadian and Alaskan waters through a series of dams, reservoirs, and canals to the U.S. Southwest has gained new momentum.” And Jeffrey Simpson, a prominent Globe and Mail columnist, predicts that early in the next century the U.S. and Canada will start debating the export of our fresh water in earnest.
Canadians have every reason to be alarmed, because if history has taught us anything, it is that our governments cannot be trusted as custodians of our precious resources. For over a century, they have razed our forests, and more recently they have subsidized energy megaprojects for the benefit of multinationals. With pressure mounting on governments to reduce the deficit and then retire the federal debt, can any Canadian state with confidence that our provinces – which own most of our lakes and rivers – won’t be tempted by a quick fix of selling off our water supplies?
To stop a senseless export of our water, three things need to happen. First, governments must stop subsidizing resource developments. Grandiose water export schemes – with price tags in excess of $300 billion – would inevitably require government backing. Next, the government’s sweeping right of expropriation – which it would need to build reservoirs, canals, and pipelines through people’s lands – must be drastically curbed. Governments not only expropriate with abandon for their own purposes, but they wantonly allow literally thousands of quasi-governmental bodies – and even private corporations – to exercise that power. Expropriation was once limited to “necessary public functions” such as roads or right-of-ways for telephone lines and sewers. Today, governments expropriate river-front property to build casinos, and even forcibly evict people from their homes for the benefit of real estate developers.
Finally, the government should uphold rights of water users, and restore riparian rights – the traditional rights to water flows unaltered in quantity or quality – to the citizens who live along lakes and rivers, and who depend upon them for their livelihood and for their recreation. Large-scale water diversions would become impossible, while small-scale uses would flourish: fishing communities would ensure that the local fisheries were preserved, tourism areas would value the clean water for the tourists attracted by pristine wilderness experiences, breweries using pure waters would prevent polluters from fouling their product.
Only governments – who own or control virtually all the water in the country and who have been only too willing to run roughshod over the rights of Canadians – would ever be able to make the nightmare of a massive export of water to the U.S. a reality. We must rein governments in to protect our heritage and our resources by placing trust where it is most deserved – in the hands of the men and women who make up this land, and who want to preserve it for generations to come.