The Fraser Institute, a right-leaning Canadian think tank, wants a shift in government water policy.
A new report by the Fraser Institute, a Vancouver-based conservative think tank, argues in favor of fewer restrictions on the movement of water.
The release of the report Making Waves: Examining the Case for Sustainable Water Exports from Canada comes on the heels of a bill proposed in May by the national government to strengthen protections against the diversion of waters that cross the U.S.-Canadian border.
The report’s author Diane Katz, the institute’s director of risk, environment and energy policy, argues Canada has abundant water supplies and suggests Canadian governments should repeal provincial and national bans on bulk water exports. Proponents of bulk water diversions argue that Canada, with the world’s third largest supply of renewable freshwater resources, has enough water to export some to the world’s drier climates.
Meanwhile opponents counter that the surplus is needed for ecological preservation and that certain areas of the country are already in shortage. Some are also concerned about trade agreements being a Trojan Horse for unrestricted American appropriation. Public opinion leans strongly in opposition of water exports, according to several polls.
“This important legislation makes it clear that we are not in the business of exporting our water,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon to the Vancouver Sun about the bill. “Canadian water is not a commodity. It is not for sale.”
But Canadian water is sold outside of Canada in the products it exports, just not in its raw form.
“Canada exports water all the time in bottled form or in virtual form,” Katz told Circle of Blue. Virtual water is the water that is used to produce goods, such as the irrigation used to grow wheat in Saskatchewan.
“Water is going in and out of the country all the time,” Katz added. “There are examples of huge diversion from watersheds because of hydropower. We try to point out in the report that these things are being done now.”
For a sustainable export policy, Katz recommends property rights based on unitization – a proportion of a river’s flow instead of an absolute volume. Allocations in this manner would incorporate environmental considerations for fish and riparian ecosystems, she said. The money from rights auctions or concessions could be used to renovate leaky public supply systems. Montreal’s water system, the report notes, loses 40 percent of its supply to leaks.
The report’s recommendations include:
- Improving public understanding of water issues: An independent audit should be conducted of government websites, curriculum materials and other documents to ensure factual accuracy.
- Conducting groundwater mapping and fresh water inventories: A centralized database should be established and a comprehensive assessment of the country’s fresh water resources should be conducted.
- Determining sustainable water levels: Determine sustainable water allocations based on proportional flows and natural variations in water yields.
- Reforming public subsidies for water use: Artificially low residential and industrial water rates should be phased out, and agricultural users should be required to adopt water conserving technologies.
- Repealing bulk water export prohibitions: The government should move toward property rights to water.
But bulk water removals go against the grain of public opinion. The Canadian Water Issues Council, a policy research group at the University of Toronto, wrote a paper in 2008 arguing that river basins in Canada are already under water stress and bulk removals would hinder their resilience against future threats such as reduced flows brought by climate change.
The Council of Canadians, a social justice advocacy group, is also strongly opposed to water exports and pushes for water to be declared a human right.
Despite the opposition the Fraser Institute wants a more frank discussion of how Canada can best utilize its resources.
“We do want people to start thinking about how water is used and priced and to think about the benefits of using water in different ways,” Katz said. “Typically debate isn’t about the benefits it’s about the risks.”
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton