Drain Canada

CBS Names Senior Investigative Producer Keith Summa
This column was written by Jon Margolis.
In Michael Moore's 1995 "Canadian Bacon" an American president decides to boost his re-election prospects by going to war against Canada.

Canadians were not particularly amused, but neither were they upset. This was a fictional invasion. Besides, it only sought to capture their government.

Now looms a U.S. invasion Canadians take more seriously. This one is real, and its target is more tangible — their water. They think we're coming after it. They're right.

It isn't that the water wars are the talk of the nation; they were rarely mentioned in the recent federal election campaign. But the dispute bobs beneath the surface, a regular topic of conversation among the political elites. From the left, the Council of Canadians calls for a national water policy that would prevent "bulk water exports and diversions." From the right, former Albert Premier Peter Lougheed predicted that, "the United States will be coming after our fresh water aggressively within three to five years."

So far as is known, the Department of National Defence has not organized a task force to determine where to erect barricades. No one expects the U.S. Marines to land on Cape Breton or the Army's 82nd Airborne to drop into Vancouver. This will be drip and drain, not shock and awe. What Canadians fear is not incursion, but diversion.

President Bush hadn't been in office eight months when he first mused in public about bringing Canadian water to the American Southwest. And no sooner had 2006 begun than former U.S. ambassador Paul Cellucci told a Canadian audience that their resistance to selling water south was "odd."

If so, it is oddness shared by 69 percent of Canadians, according to a 2002 poll by the Centre for Research and Information on Canada. But then, Cellucci, probably the least popular ambassador the United States has ever sent to Ottawa, has been politically tone deaf for some time.

Still, he may have a point. Canada has 20 percent of all the world's fresh water, to slake the thirsts and irrigate the crops of only 0.5 percent of the world's population. With the United Nations estimating that almost two-thirds of everybody, or almost 5.5 billion people, will face chronic water shortages by 2050, you'd think the Canadians could ship a few gallons elsewhere, especially if they get paid for it.

After all, if water is going to become as scarce as the United Nations suggests, the forecasters who predict that water will be "the next oil" — the resource that nations go to war over — could be right. And keeping it from all those thirsty billions would become morally as well as geopolitically untenable.

Not that what Bush, Cellucci et al. have in mind is providing succor to the parched patches of Africa or Asia. What they're talking about is making sure that the suburbanization of greater Las Vegas, Phoenix, and smaller metropolises in the Southwest is not impeded by lack of H20.

It's a long way from Las Vegas to Alberta, but water entrepreneurs do not think small. Some 20 years ago, the North American Water and Power Alliance proposed to dam most of the rivers in British Columbia and divert the water into the United States and Mexico through a half-billion-dollar network of dams and canals. Right now, a California company has a plan to put water from western Canadian rivers into plastic bags bigger than the Goodyear blimp so it can be towed south by ship. And in 1998, Ontario said an outfit called the Nova Group could export millions of liters of Lake Superior water by tanker to Asia.

Politically speaking, that one opened the floodgates. You don't mess with the Great Lakes without arousing passions, and opposition, on both sides of the border. That plan was swamped, and both federal governments agreed to consider stronger protection for the lakes.