Canada's Great Lakes water worries

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Canada’s long-standing fear of getting sucked into a diplomatic water war with the United States is back on.

Gary Doer, Canada’s ambassador to the United States, predicted in a recent interview in Postmedia News that U.S. demands for water five years from now will be so great they will make the controversy over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline “look silly.” He urged Canadians to start doing a better job of protecting their water resources.

Then came a fine commentary in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s largest-circulation national newspaper, by its national affairs columnist, Gary Mason, which captured the essence of why Canadians are justified in fearing America’s growing demand for water.

Mr. Mason cited parts of California experiencing “their worst drought in modern history” to the rapid depletion of the world’s largest-known freshwater aquifer, the Ogallala Aquifer, which serves several Midwestern prairie and Southwestern states, some of them major grain producers. His column came complete with the catchy headline “In a water war, Canada could get hosed.”

It would be fun to write off these articles as Canadian paranoia, except they make some valid points. The United States is indeed on a collision course over water, and it has been for years.

America’s growing water stress was a driving force behind the eight-state Great Lakes water-management compact that has been endorsed, in principle, by Canada’s two affected provinces, Ontario and Quebec. The Great Lakes compact seeks to keep water in the Great Lakes region.

A nonbinding agreement in principle — i.e., a public acknowledgment — is the best that can be done in that regard because states cannot enter into legally binding contracts with provinces or other foreign entities.

The heavy negotiations that went into that compact led to some eye-opening revelations, not the least of which was how Americans don’t quite appreciate or understand the Canadian perspective when it comes to something as simple as protecting the Great Lakes.

Put yourself in Canada’s shoes — or winter boots, for that matter. The USA, to many Canadians, is a big resource-sucking machine. We covet Canada’s water, natural gas and timber. We sometimes think of the Great Lakes as our own, when in fact they are a shared resource.

Of the 40 million people who live in the Great Lakes basin, 30 million are in the United States and 10 million are in Canada. In other words, one of every four Great Lakes residents are Canadians, plus there are rights to the water claimed by tribes and First Nations.

One of the biggest examples of America’s oversight was a 1985 agreement among Great Lakes governors that served as a forerunner to the compact, asserting that Great Lakes water needs to stay in the basin. It was approved without input from Canada’s two provinces.

The Great Lakes compact is fraught with exemptions, as things usually are when politicians, lawyers and lobbyists get years to meddle.

One controversial exemption allows water to be shipped out of the region in small containers. At one point during the negotiations, one of Canada’s largest environmental groups, the Council of Canadians, opposed it because it feared it would be a wolf in sheep’s clothing and lead to multiple diversions for many communities which straddle the lake region’s natural basin without actually being inside of it.

That battle is now being played out in Waukesha, Wis., near Milwaukee, which is trying to get a permit for Lake Michigan water even though it lies just outside the lake’s natural basin. The mayor of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Keith Hobbs, is not at all happy about Waukesha’s effort.

In a CBC News report last July, Mr. Hobbs said a permit for Waukesha would set a bad precedent, while the general manager of Waukesha’s water utility, Dan Duchniak, said it would be no worse than “taking a teaspoon of water out of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.”

Another interesting twist: Mr. Hobbs is now the chairman and director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, a Chicago-based coalition of mayors and other government officials that attempts to unite the region’s cities on policy matters.

So where is all this headed?

Good question, especially as the effects of climate change become more acute and continue to stress already-stressed areas.

Great Lakes water levels are expected to be much closer to normal this summer, meaning the most water-blessed region of North America will be sitting even prettier while demands for water are expected to increase in areas of need.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that the 40 million people who live in the Great Lakes region see their shared resource differently.

In 2001, President George W. Bush’s simple acknowledgement of how Canada’s vast fresh water extends beyond the Great Lakes set off a firestorm of a response in Canada.

Six years later, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson dealt his bid for the 2008 presidential nomination a serious blow when he said the Great Lakes is “awash with water” that could someday help quench the Southwest’s thirst. He quickly recanted.

Just five months after Mr. Richardson’s miscue, former Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher caught flak when he raised the specter of someday selling Lake Erie water to other parts of the world. He also quickly reversed himself, after learning his comments didn’t play well.

Yes, Canadians have a different perspective about the Great Lakes. Different, but not necessarily wrong.

Tom Henry, a staff writer for The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, the sister newspaper of the Post-Gazette, writes a blog on Great Lakes issues called the Ripple Effect, in which this first appeared (, 419-724-6079).

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