With the exception of a few weeks a year of water restrictions, most North Americans won’t think twice about leaving a sprinkler on or taking an extra-long shower. Fresh water is seemingly abundant. Not so for many parts of the world, that face constant water stress. There are somewhere between 780 million to one billion people without basic and reliable water supplies. More than 2 billion lack the water requirements for basic sanitation.
It’s also slightly mind-blowing to remember that, while 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by water, less than 1% is potable.
98% of the world’s water is in the oceans — which makes it unfit for drinking or irrigation. Just 2% of the world’s water is fresh, but the vast majority of our fresh water, 1.6%, is in a frozen state, locked up in the polar ice caps and glaciers. Our available fresh water (.396% of total supply) is found underground in aquifers and wells (0.36%) and the rest of our readily available fresh water is in lakes and rivers.
Put another way, only 0.007% of the Earth’s water is available for drinking, feeding, or fueling (through hydro-electric power or cooling towers needed to run industrial equipment) its 7.5 billion people. We are dancing much closer to the knife edge of water scarcity than we think.
According to the UN, demand for water is expected to grow 55% by 2050, with most of the need (70%) driven by irrigation, to feed the expanding global population, expected to hit 10 billion by 2050. Water for energy use is forecast to rise by 20%.
But the supply won’t be enough to satisfy everyone. By 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in areas where water is scarce, and two-thirds will be residents in water-stressed regions, reports National Geographic.
In North America, the major concern is over water levels in the Ogallala aquifer under the US Great Plains — the world’s breadbasket. The Ogallala is the world’s largest known aquifer. With an approximate area of 450,600 square kilometers, it stretches from southern South Dakota through parts of Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and northern Texas. The Ogallala aquifer was formed roughly 10 million years ago when water flowed onto the plains from retreating glaciers and streams of the Rocky Mountains.
The Ogallala is no longer being recharged by the Rockies and precipitation in the region is only 30-60 cm per year. In three leading grain-producing states — Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas — the underground water table has dropped by more than 30 meters. Much of the reason for declining groundwater is due to over-use; the aquifer is being sucked dry at an annual volume equivalent to 18 Colorado Rivers.
A prolonged drought since 2000 in the Colorado River Basin (a recent study shows 2000-18 was the driest period in the US Southwest since the late 1500s) — which includes bits of seven western states and a part of Mexico — has made it impossible for the country’s biggest reservoirs, Lake Mead in Nevada and Lake Powell straddling the border of Utah and Arizona — to recharge fully; they are currently only about two-fifths full.
This is a huge problem, considering that the Colorado River provides water for more than 40 million people including major US cities Las Vegas and Los Angles.
The issue is due mostly to a depleting snowpack; a weak monsoon season last summer and ongoing La Nina conditions have also stifled precipitation. In California, March was the fifth consecutive month of below-average rain and snow.
On March 24, the snowpack in the southwestern corner of Colorado was at 84% of its normal level for this time of year, prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency. The pack in parts of Arizona and New Mexico is under 50% of normal.
In fact, less snow and less run-off into rivers and lakes is becoming a long-term trend; a professor at Oregon State University found the annual snowpack in the American West has declined 15-30% since 2015.
The Economist quotes a climatologist at the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, NV, saying that warmer winters due to rising CO2 emissions have made droughts more frequent.
Western Colorado, for example, has warmed faster than any part of the country except Alaska.
According to the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, higher temperatures can increase the rate of soil evaporation, further suppress rainfall in already dry areas, and alter narrow bands of moisture in the atmosphere, thereby disrupting precipitation patterns.
Inside Climate News reports that dry spells are getting longer between downpours and blizzards, and that the snowpack is melting during the winter. A warming atmosphere may also be suppressing critical summer rains.
A year ago, when California and Colorado experienced their worst fire seasons on record, drought conditions spanned about half the West, and no areas experienced “extreme” or “exceptional” conditions. But going into this year’s dry season, about 90 percent of the region is now in drought, with 40 percent in those two most severe categories.
About half of the United States is currently in a drought and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says warmer than average temperatures this spring, less than normal precipitation, and low soil moisture could expand drought conditions in the Great Plains and southern Florida.
Meanwhile continued warming, lower snowpack’s, and increased competition for scarce water supplies, are leading to a showdown between states that signed a 1922 compact governing the use of the Colorado River. The agreement is up for re-negotiation in 2026.
Among the stakeholders, all wanting their allocation of precious river water, are states, tribes, the Mexican government, farmers, and environmentalists.
An agreement may be tough to reach, due to the fact that the original compact divies up 30% more water than is in the river today, meaning officials will have to figure out how to share an amount of water that doesn’t exist and is shrinking due to climate change, notes the BBC.
In Canada, southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan are down 20% of normal precipitation of the past 40 years, with Winnipeg receiving only half of its regular rain and snow levels in 2020.
The US Drought Monitor is forecasting severe or extreme drought conditions across most of North Dakota, the state bordering Saskatchewan and Manitoba. According to The Producer, about half of the growing region is experiencing some level of drought heading into spring.
Saskatchewan may be particularly hard hit, with much of the southern part of the province receiving under 40% of its usual soil moisture, and the rest of Saskatchewan in the 40-60% range.
US eyes Canadian water
The fact that the United States is more vulnerable to droughts than Canada, due in part to geography, and also because of misuse, ie., over-drawing from aquifers and reservoirs, has Uncle Sam looking to Ottawa to solve its freshwater dilemma.
It’s not only a matter of public health, but economics. For example, California, whose nearly 40 million population is greater than Canada’s, is North America’s biggest supplier of fruits, nuts and vegetables. Not being able to properly irrigate its 43 million acres used for agriculture, is motivation alone, to begin looking elsewhere for a reliable source of H2O.
In fact, Canadians may be surprised to learn that plans have been on the books since the 1950s to divert a large amount of water from Canada, state-side.
The North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA) proposed to use nuclear explosions to blast canals and channel water from the north-flowing Yukon, Liard, and Peace rivers, southward to water-deprived US agricultural regions and cities. A 2015 column posted on Radio Canada International notes that NAWAPA is still very much alive, with detailed proposals and analysis made in 2010 and 2012.
Another scheme, called the Grand Canal, would dam the top of James Bay, turning it into a huge reservoir, and cut a massive trench through northern Ontario that would bring fresh water to the Great Lakes, from where Americans could siphon however much water they need for farms, towns and cities impacted by climate change.
Abhorrent as these ideas seem, some Canadian politicians have advocated selling Canadian water down the river.
Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney introduced a bill that would have allowed exports by tanker and small-scale land diversion. Ex-NDP leader Thomas Mulcair wanted to explore the concept of bulk water exports while he was Quebec’s environment minister.
The Montreal Economic Institute reportedly argued that water exports would be a huge boon to heavily indebted Quebec, pointing out the province could earn as much as $65 billion annually by exporting around 10% of its fresh water supply.
Of course a large amount of Canadian water was shipped out of the country by Swiss consumer products giant Nestle, which sucked up vast amounts of groundwater for its bottling plant in Ontario, before selling its Canadian water business last year.
Columnist Lloyd Alter, in his piece ‘Canada has water. The US wants it’, claims that 3,200 cubic feet per second is pumped from Lake Michigan and sent south through the Chicago River and into the Mississippi, through deals made between Canadian and US industries.
The federal government’s Bill C-383 bans inter-basin transfers into international rivers but the legislation does not cover non-boundary waters or water resources in the north, states the Council of Canadians. A further loophole in the act, is it narrows the definition of water removal to 50,000 liters or more, and exempts water used to make beverages.
With friends like these…
Canadian politicians should be wary of any overtures the United States makes toward us for our water, not only because we may need all we can get, as drought conditions migrate north, but given how poorly our southern neighbour and supposed friend has treated us lately.
Consider how former President Trump decided the first country he would visit after inauguration in January 2017 was Saudi Arabia. Most incoming US presidents prioritize a visit with Canada, arguably its greatest ally, friend, and neighbor. The snub was not easily forgotten.
In 2018 Canada was surprisingly included among countries subject to US tariffs on aluminum and steel. Claiming they were being imposed for reasons of “national security” (what Trump really meant was security of supply), the duties were dropped a year later, but threats of more tariffs returned in 2020. The US was about to impose a second 10% levy on Canadian aluminum imports when the Americans announced they had reached a deal.
Then there was the fight over NAFTA. In renegotiating the trilateral agreement between Canada, the US and Mexico, Trump railed against Canadian dairy farmers, calling tariffs on milk, cheese and butter from the United States “a disgrace”; threatened to slap a 25% duty on Canadian-made cars; and at one point during the negotiations lashed out at Prime Minister Trudeau, calling him “meek, mild and dishonest.”
After Trump lost the election to Joe Biden many in Canada hoped the tense relationship between the two countries would morph into something more cordial, but Biden was quick to throw sand in the face of that notion. On his first day in office, Biden announced the Keystone XL pipeline expansion project would be scrapped.
The executive order to scuttle the 1,897-kilometer pipeline, with capacity to carry 830,000 barrels of Alberta oilsands crude to Nebraska and on to Gulf Coast refineries, fulfilled a campaign promise by Biden, and showed that the US didn’t really need Canadian oil.
Indeed, the country’s reliance on shale oil, resulting in a 230% surge in crude production, or an extra 6.9 million barrels a day, combined with other pipelines that have come to the fore, including the Trans Mountain Pipeline which heads west from Alberta to BC and connects with a pipeline to Washington State, and Enbridge Line 3, also beginning in Alberta and crossing Minnesota into Wisconsin, made sure of that.
Still, the fact that Biden wasn’t even willing to discuss the project, which had already started construction, left a bad taste in the mouth of Canadians hoping for a better trading relationship, and especially infuriated Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who called the cancelation “a gut punch”.
In 2019 the Financial Post reported on another protectionist measure, a “little-known tariff” that is costing Canadian oil companies about $60 million a year. While only amounting to about 10.5 cents per barrel, traders say it makes a big difference at the margins, especially since oil prices have fallen and Canadian oil prices have remained persistently low.
It’s interesting how the United States, whether it’s a Republican or a Democratic administration, plays hard ball with Canadian trade interests — whether it be oil, softwood lumber, dairy or autos — but when Washington wants something, it comes across like a back-slapping uncle at a Thanksgiving feast.
Case in point: the US making nice with Canada over critical minerals. It took a trade war with China for the country to realize how easily it can be held ransom over rare earths, cobalt, graphite, manganese or any other of the 35 minerals the US Geological Survey considers critical to US economic and national security.
Realizing that Canada supplies 13 of these minerals, and is America’s leading supplier of indium, potash, aluminum and tellurium, its second-largest supplier of tungsten, manganese and niobium, and ships roughly a quarter of US uranium supply, suddenly all previous acrimony was forgotten amid the new threat posed (mostly) by China’s monopoly over much of the world’s critical minerals supply chain.
In January 2020, the two nations agreed to a Joint Action Plan on Critical Minerals Collaboration aimed at improving critical mineral security.
That was followed in 2021 with an agreement between Biden and Trudeau to build a US-Canada electric vehicle supply chain.
Both countries are also, as Reuters states, members of the Energy Resource Governance Initiative, a pact to share mining experience and resources.
Our point is not that there’s anything wrong with this type of collaboration. At AOTH, we have been pushing for more top-down action on critical minerals insecurity of supply for years.
The fact that closer collaboration appears to be more than lip service — note for example, that recently the US Commerce Department had a closed-door meeting with miners and battery manufacturers to discuss Canadian production of EV materials, and that three US mining companies have already invested in Canada — is heartening news. Great for the mining industries of both countries.
What gets me, though, is how bad Canadian politicians are at negotiating. Here we finally have a resource that should give us significant leverage in dealing with our largest trading partner, ie., critical metals. In return for offering our minerals and our mining expertise, what are we asking for in return? I’ve yet to discover anything in print.
Our best friend and ally’s reaction? To increasingly view Canada as a kind of “51st State” for mineral supply purposes (quoting here from Reuters).
Excuse me? A 51st State? What happened to Canadian sovereignty over mineral resources? Where’s the contrition in treating little brother Canada like a punching bag over our oil? Our lumber? Our dairy products?
If we can’t even stand up for ourselves over mining, an area of national expertise since well before the United States asked for our help, what hope do we have in maintaining Canadian sovereignty over fresh water?
It’s about time our politicians grew a backbone. Access to our resources should only be granted at a fair price, and only after our needs are taken care of first.
Ahead of the Herd newsletter, aheadoftheherd.com, hereafter known as AOTH.
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