By Peter Chow
“Canada has one of the largest resources of fresh water in the world. Water is going to be — already is — a very, very valuable commodity and I’ve always found it odd that Canada is so willing to sell oil and natural gas and uranium and coal, which are by their nature finite. But talking about water is off the table, yet water is renewable.”
— Paul Cellucci (U.S. ambassador to Canada, 2001 to 2005)
The Ogallala Aquifer is one of the world’s largest aquifers, underlying eight states, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas.
Primarily used for irrigation, the aquifer is critical to the West and Midwest, where agriculture represents a huge chunk of the economy.
The aquifer is running dry – it has decreased by more than 50 feet, a decline of more than 60 million acre-feet since 1969. An acre-foot of water is the equivalent of 1 acre of surface area covered by water 1 foot deep – 325,853 U.S. gallons.
That 60 million-acre-foot decline in the Ogallala Aquifer equates to about 20 trillion gallons of water.
Wells all across the Midwest and West are starting to run dry.
When you turn on your faucet in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, or California, you are probably drawing water from the Colorado River.
From its source high in the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River channels water south nearly 1,500 miles, through deserts and canyons, to the lush wetlands of a vast delta in Mexico and into the Gulf of California.
That is, it did so for six million years.
Today, the mighty Colorado River comes to a dribble and dries out some 100 miles north of the sea.
Beginning in the 1920s, Western states began divvying up the Colorado’s water, building dams and diverting the flow hundreds of miles, to Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque and San Diego and other fast-growing cities.
The river now serves 60 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico, with more than 70% of its water siphoned off to irrigate 4.1 million acres of cropland.
The damming and diverting of the Colorado, the nation’s seventh-longest river, may be seen by some as a triumph of engineering but by others as a crime against nature.
Boaters still roar across Nevada and Arizona’s Lake Mead, 110 miles long, formed by the Hoover Dam and supplying Las Vegas’ and Arizona’s water needs.
When full, it holds 9.3 trillion gallons, an amount equal to the water that flows through the Colorado River in two years.
But at the lake’s edge they can see lines in the rock walls, distinct as bathtub rings, showing the water level far lower than it once was—some 135 feet lower, since 2000.
Climate change will decrease the Colorado River’s flow by 40% in the next 40 years. Increased disappearance of ice and snow with global warming in the Rocky Mountains will yield less water to begin with. Droughts will last longer. Higher overall air temperatures will mean more water lost to evaporation.
Experts are no longer talking about a temporary (if prolonged) state of drought in the Colorado River Basin: they refer now to a permanent state of aridification.
Demand for the Colorado River’s water has outstripped supply for the past two decades.
This deficit threatens the freshwater supply of some 60 million people and the food security of the whole nation: water from the Colorado River is used to grow 90% of the nation’s winter vegetables.
The Colorado River Basin drives a $1.5 trillion economy—if the 242,000-square-foot basin were its own country, it would be the world’s seventh largest by economic output.
But providing freshwater to growing cities and farms carved out of an unforgiving landscape (70% of the river’s water is used for irrigation) is unsustainable.
Inevitably, the US will look to the Great Lakes.
The Great Lakes, which are shared between Canada and the United States, are the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world and account for 21% of the surface fresh water on the planet.
Canada has the 2nd largest renewable freshwater supply in the world (after Brazil), with an average annual flow of 3,478 cubic kilometres.
This works out to more than 100,000 cubic metres of renewable fresh water per person, the second-largest amount among developed countries behind only Iceland.
Diversions of water from the Great Lakes are currently negligible.
The major diversion so far is in the Chicago River, where the US Corps of Engineers has reversed the flow, diverting the water from Lake Michigan into the Mississippi.
However, an increasing number of droughts from global warming will result in more arid conditions in southern, central, and western U.S.
Moreover, the US population will swell by 50% – an additional 150 million people – in the next few decades, thus exacerbating water needs.
As fresh water supplies are dwindling in the American West and South, states are under increasing pressure to divert water to dry parts of the country.
Water will be the new oil.
The pipelines of the future will be transporting water from the Great Lakes to California and Nevada and Arizona and Colorado.
It is only a matter of when, not if, and it will likely be sooner rather than later.
The Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact (the Compact) is a deal signed between the eight Great Lakes states and Ontario and Quebec.
The Compact bans large-scale diversions from the Great Lakes and establishes a consensus-based process for managing the region’s waters.
The agreement aims to keep Great Lakes water from being diverted to areas far beyond the Great Lakes Basin, but it also requires that any water that is diverted be used to serve the public, and not industry.
In 2019, a Wisconsin judge upheld the Foxconn decision, undermining the “Compact” designed to prevent Great Lakes diversions.
The judge upheld a decision by the State of Wisconsin to authorize a massive diversion of Lake Michigan water, 7 million gallons a day, by the Foxconn Corporation, a multi-national electronics manufacturing company, who would make liquid crystal displays, more commonly known as LCDs, in a factory outside Racine, Wisconsin.
The decision threatens the integrity of the compact’s ban on diversions and is likely the beginning of diversion of massive amounts of water from the Great Lakes basin.
Succumbing to future pressure from the United States to allow companies and states access to Canada’s water resources is a slippery point from which no return will likely be possible.
The ability of American politicians (like Trump) to appeal to the emotional instincts of Americans and steamroll over concerns of close allies, could make mincemeat of Canada’s attempts to save its water.
Forewarned is forearmed.
This raises the acute need for national leadership.
The proposed Canada Water Agency (CWA) will have a key role to play in leading a strengthened national approach to shared water decision-making and management.
The agency will act as a knowledge liaison that facilitates collaboration between water experts in the U.S. and Canada, across governments, non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, and the private sector.
Sault Ste Marie is uniquely positioned to be the location for the Canada Water Agency.
Sault Ste Marie is located at the hub of Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
The Canada Water Agency will need to play a leading role in providing national scale leadership and guidance on shared-water decision-making and water management best practices.
It would only be logical for the Canada Water Agency to be located at the center of the largest supply of fresh water on the planet……rather than in the middle of the prairies (Regina is making a bid).
Sault Ste Marie is ready and waiting – the ideal location for the Canada Water Agency.