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California Drought: Is Fresh Water Ours to Sell?

(Note: This comment was first published 15 Feb. 2014)

[The punishing drought that has swept California is now threatening the state’s drinking water supply.

With no sign of rain, 17 rural communities providing water to 40,000 people are in danger of running out within 60 to 120 days. State officials said that the number was likely to rise in the months ahead after the State Water Project, the main municipal water distribution system, announced on Friday that it did not have enough water to supplement the dwindling supplies of local agencies that provide water to an additional 25 million people. It is first time the project has turned off its spigot in its 54-year history.

State reservoir levels are lower in California than they were at this time in 1977, the last time the state endured a drought this severe.

State officials said they were moving to put emergency plans in place. In the worst case, they said drinking water would have to be brought by truck into parched communities and additional wells would have to be drilled to draw on groundwater. The deteriorating situation would likely mean imposing mandatory water conservation measures on homeowners and businesses, who have already been asked to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20 percent.] excerpt from the article.

Stories like this are buried in the pages of Canadian newspapers.  Drought, the worst to inflict California in 100 years, threatens drinking water and crop irrigation.  These are early signs of the ‘water war’ to come as we face the fact that California needs water and Canada has it.

Canada has 14% of the earth’s freshwater of which 7% is not renewable.  Water could be diverted from Canada into American rivers.  Water has for years been shipped to California, but the scale of the need for water has never been so great as it is today.

[When Prime Minister Stephen Harper sat down with President George W. Bush in their first White House meeting July 6th, one of the ‘unmentionable ‘ items on their agenda may well have been the question of bulk water exports from Canada. After all, Bush himself raised the issue back in July, 2001 when he talked off the cuff to reporters about growing water shortages in his home state of Texas and elsewhere in the country, saying he would like to begin negotiations with Ottawa on water exports from Canada. In Texas, he said, “water is more valuable than oil.” “A lot of people don’t need it, but when you head south and west, we need it,” Bush declared, adding that he “looked forward” to discussing the matter with then Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

At the time, the reaction from Canadian officials was swift and blunt. “We’re absolutely not going to export water, period,” proclaimed David Anderson, then Canada’s environment minister. Anderson’s comment reflected what seems to be a general public consensus that water should not be treated like other natural resources [e.g. oil, gas, minerals, timber etc.] as a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market to U.S. customers. After Anderson’s reaction, the issue seemed to fade from the news headlines until former U.S. ambassador Paul Celucci revived the issue in the early stages of the 2005-6 federal election.] excerpt from article by Tony Clarke, Polaris Institute.

Canada’s winter food supply is largely a product of California harvests.  There is trade with Chile and Argentina, but the largest share of food imports comes from the United States.  This is a continental problem, not just an American one.  If Californians cannot grow the produce that Canadians need, food shortages will result and costs will soar here in Canada and the United States.

A short term solution is the shipping of freshwater by tanker, but water diversion projects could move water from Canada into several western states which could reduce the risk of severe droughts for many years to come.  

We have always imagined that our freshwater is ours collectively, not a product to buy and sell, yet trade in bottles of fresh water is a growing commodity.  We seem to make a distinction between trading in bottled water and diversion projects that would move greater volumes of water to the United States.

Perhaps that distinction is too subtle.  The issue is not whether or not water is a tradable commodity, but whether or not it is ours to trade.  One could take the view that freshwater does not belong to anyone, that nobody has the right to buy and sell it, despite the fact that we do already in containers no larger than 20 litres.

The ‘water war’ will challenge us to question our perception of water and ourselves.  It may cause us to see water as a continental resource, rather than a national resource, a commodity to share rather than trade.  In this ‘war,’ those who would choose to share it will be thought radical, rather than those who prefer to sell it; they will be called businessmen.  

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Professional. Retired. Canadian.

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