Canadian water for California’s drought?

A far-fetched pipe dream rears its head.


In the 2004 Canadian TV drama H2O, a prime minister is assassinated and his son, urged on by a group of international financiers, takes over. Their goal: sell Canada’s water to an increasingly parched United States. 

Farfetched as the plot sounds, it draws on a longstanding Canadian fear that their large, powerful neighbor might one day grow desperate enough to forcibly siphon off some of Canada’s abundant water supply. Now, as drought enters its 15th year across much of the American West, old ideas about massive water transfers — some more plausible than others — are resurfacing.

“As the drought continues … we’ll act in extraordinary ways,” California Gov. Jerry Brown said in a speech last month, announcing $1 billion in emergency funding to deal with the state's multi-year drought. In Canada, those comments have sparked conversations about just how far the U.S. is prepared to go. “Massive water-diversion scheme stirs in its grave,” ran the title of a column by Stephen Hume in the Vancouver Sun this week. Last year, Daniel Fontaine, another Canadian columnist, wrote: “[S]omething tells me a 500-year drought may soon re-open a debate that few of us appear willing to undertake.” 

On April 25, the largest U.S. reservoir, Lake Mead, dropped to historic lows, reaching 1,080 feet. That record surpassed the previous low set last August, since it was filled in the 1930s. And earlier this month, with snowpack in the Sierra Mountains at just 5 percent of normal for this time of year, Brown mandated a 25 percent water-use reduction for residents and nonagricultural businesses across California. It was the first time in the state’s history that mandatory water rationing had been imposed.

Meanwhile, nearly 900 miles north of Sacramento, there’s Canada — which has 7 percent of the earth’s renewable freshwater and less than 0.5 percent of its population. Neither California nor any Southwest state is asking for Canadian water right now, but the idea of international transfers has deep roots.

The most grandiose proposals for moving water from Canada to the U.S. were dreamed up in the 1960s, during the heady days of big dams, when American water use was increasing exponentially. According to Ralph Pentland, the former director of water planning and management for the Canadian government, the discussion has cropped up about as frequently as the droughts that hit the Western U.S. every five to 10 years.

In 1964, a California engineering company proposed diverting flows from the Yukon and Mackenzie River watersheds, shared by Canada and the U.S., all the way to southern California and into Mexico. The run-off would be stored behind a series of giant dams and diverted into an immense 500-mile-long reservoir that would extend the length of British Columbia and down to the Flathead Lake in Montana. From there, the water would feed into the Columbia, Missouri, Mississippi and Colorado River systems.

Fifty years ago, California engineers hatched a plan to divert water from the Yukon River, pictured here, in Canada's north all the way to the U.S. southwest. Now, prolonged drought across much of the western U.S. is reviving old ideas about transporting Canadian water south.
Flickr user Keith Williams
Proponents of the “North American Water and Power Alliance” believed the plan was a 100-year solution to projected future water shortages in Canada, Mexico and the U.S. It was never built, due to the expected environmental impacts, including the flooding of 2,500 square miles of land, and the immense cost, estimated at $100 billion in 1964 dollars. But the ultimate failure of the alliance didn’t kill the basic concept.

Throughout the ‘70s and 80s, private companies floated various cross-border water transport schemes, but according to Pentland, they weren’t much more than lines on a map.

“Whenever anybody actually studied the feasibility of these things, they’d get about a nickel back for every dollar invested, so neither country took them very seriously,” he said. That’s because water is heavy, and moving it uphill, out of a river basin, requires a lot of energy. That cost alone far surpasses what you’d get for selling the water to the agriculture industry, the largest potential customer.

Fast-forward to the early ‘90s, and California was in the midst of another water shortage. A new wave of export proposals surfaced as Canadian companies looked to cash in on the Golden State’s drought. This time, the ideas were more feasible and mostly involved shipping water from B.C. to Santa Barbara, California, on oil tankers. But when the city of Santa Barbara looked into it, they found that desalination would cost roughly the same — and would offer a more secure supply.

Even if the logistical challenges somehow proved surmountable, the law poses another barrier. Every Canadian province, except one, bans bulk water exports. And in 2010 the government strengthened those laws with legislation to prohibit bulk removal of Canada’s water outside the country.

Most experts believe the era of big water transfer schemes is over. Chris Wood, a Canadian journalist and author of two books on water, called the idea “a 20th-century way of thinking.”

And while an impending “water war” between Canada and the U.S. may make for good television, reality suggests the opposite will happen. After a tussle between Montana ranchers and Alberta over water from the St. Mary’s River, which runs across the border, the two countries signed the Boundary Waters Treaty in 1909. The treaty created a joint commission to govern lakes and rivers shared by the U.S. and Canada.

“One could imagine that as water grows more scarce it could become more competitive,” Pentland said. But, he added, “We have a pretty good 100-year record of solving these things between our two countries, so probably we will keep doing that.”

Sarah Tory is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She is a Canadian citizen based in Paonia, Colorado. 

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