Managing Water Diversion from Canada to the United States: An Old Idea Born Again?

By Lasserre, Frédéric | International Journal, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Managing Water Diversion from Canada to the United States: An Old Idea Born Again?


Lasserre, Frédéric, International Journal


Water is increasingly a major political issue as scarcity of the resource grips several societies, especially in developing countries where agriculture is responsible for about 80 percent of water consumptive use. However, western nations are not immune to water tensions, for instance in Greece, Spain, Italy, or the western United States, where the available water is being exploited to the limit: the Colorado no longer reaches the sea, and growing debates are emerging as to whether water should be allocated to thirsty cities or to agriculture; whether public funds should be invested again to increase the resource or demand management implemented; and whether water could be imported from far away.

These questions are increasingly relevant: consumption patterns of water in the western US are clearly not sustainable. Given the technology available today, massive water transfers could only come from Canada. There have been several mooted projects in this vein, mostly in the 1960s and 1970s. Should Canadians worry about water exports to the United Sates, especially in the frame of NAFTA? Or is climate change going to be the decisive factor in the debate?

THE ADVENT OF WATER ADDICTION IN THE WESTERN UNITED STATES

Water is a key ingredient in the fabric of the western American society, as has been well studied by Donald Worster.1 The west is not completely waterscarce, for several mighty rivers flow in the region, mainly fed by snow and glaciers from the Rockies; but it definitely is a semi-arid region, compelling all societies living there before the industrial revolution to adapt to water scarcity. Early 20th century American society, empowered by the industrial age, decided to harness rivers and aquifers. Technology enabled American society to eliminate the water scarcity burden and developed the illusion that technology would always bring about a solution to growing water needs. "What nature does not yield freely, humanity should refashion to better suit human needs.... Nature has no greater purpose than to serve Man, and Man has no greater purpose than to work the land and take his place in the productive cycle."2 Wendy Nelson Espeland also clearly depicted the representation that developed at the time that all water flowing unused to the ocean was a wasted resource, and that rivers needed to be "tamed" and "harnessed" to be put to use. President Franklin Roosevelt declared in 1935, when inaugurating Boulder Dam, that "the mighty waters of the Colorado were running unused to the sea. Today we translate them into a great national possession."2

This idea is still very much alive today. "Much of the contemporary culture of the American Southwest is based on denying its desertness.... In a subdivision being built to the south [of Las Vegas], Paseo Verde Parkway and Val Verde Road intersect in Green Valley Ranch. The concept of green, like sod lawns, was an imported fantasy."4 Technology can make up for water scarcity and water must be used so as to develop western resources: "The rural Western ethic is that all wealth comes out of the ground, either as grass growing or as minerals being mined.... So the fact that today's reclamation projects-such as Garrison, CUP, Animas-La Plata-cost a few million dollars for each farmer they put on the land, doesn't cause their proponents to blink. That, they say, is the price society pays for creating the stuff of wealth. Without it and the other industries based on earth, there is nothing."5

EARLY MASSIVE WATER TRANSFER PROJECTS

Massive water transfers were first built in the eastern United States in 1847 with the Croton aqueduct for New York City and the 1900 Chicago diversion. As early as 1906, water transfers began being built in the west, with a 46 km-long canal from the St. Mary River in Montana to the Milk River, triggering a severe dispute with Canada that forced the United States to negotiate the 1909 boundary waters treaty. Other projects soon followed: the Los Angeles aqueduct in 1913, the Hetch Hetchy water supply (1934), the Colorado River aqueduct (1941), the Ail-American Canal (1942), and the California central valley project (1951). …

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