Events

Water Abundance in Canada and the United States: Myth or Reality?

November 21, 2008 // 6:30am9:00am

The Canada Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in collaboration with the Canada Institute on North American Issues (CINAI), and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, co-hosted the publication launch of the tenth issue of the One Issue, Two Voices series on November 21, 2008, in Toronto. Panelists David Brooks of Friends of the Earth Canada and G. Tracy Mehan III of The Cadmus Group Inc. discussed the need to redefine effective water management in both Canada and the United States and debated the controversial approaches to achieving it. Susan Reisler, former CBC correspondent in Washington and communications consultant to various organizations involved in Canada–U.S. policy issues, served as moderator.

The event attracted an audience of nearly 100 people from a variety of sectors including environmental experts, economists, public policy analysts, government policy analysts, members of the academic and business communities, as well as others with a general interest in a comparative view of environmental and social policy in Canada and the United States.

Comparing Water Management in Canada and the United States

Tracy Mehan opened his remarks with sharp criticism of water management in the United States for not paying the full cost of maintaining the country's water infrastructure and for subsidizing wasteful water projects, water-intensive agriculture, and increased ethanol production. He maintained that water should be priced according to how it is going to be used, noting that drinking water should not cost the same as water used to fill pools.

On the subject of water consumption in the United States, Mehan said that there are encouraging signs that increasing water scarcity in some regions of the country has contributed to a new appreciation of water's value. Over the last two decades, water use has varied less than 3 percent since 1985, as withdrawals have stabilized for two of the largest uses—thermoelectric power and irrigation—despite a growing population and economy.

Nevertheless, Mehan emphasized that the United States can and should do more to conserve its fresh water supply. Achieving this, will require a mix of new technologies, pricing markets, and new regulations aimed at promoting conservation, he said.

David Brooks followed Mehan's remarks with sharp criticism of the Canadian federal government's failure to implement a national water strategy tabled 20 years ago. Consequently, Canada ranks well behind the United States and most other OECD countries in water regulation. Brooks argued that Canada's purported water abundance is a total myth, perpetuated by politicians and the media, which enables governments to ignore the need for water policy. While Canada is often reported to have 20 percent of the world's fresh water, the actual figure is closer to 7 percent. Brooks insisted that Canada must fully implement and enforce the recommendations of its 1987 federal water policy in order to achieve water sustainability. He also recommended the restoration of Canada's research and monitoring capabilities to determine ground water resources and passing and enforcing legislation of a national safe water drinking act.

Finding the Right Path

Mehan rejected Brooks' proposal, as outlined in the One Issue, Two Voices publication, to extend the reach of the International Joint Commission to water quality, pointing out that it contradicted American political, policy, and legal traditions that still defer to state authority. Brooks also disagreed with some of Mehan's water proposals, particularly his endorsement of using the market to determine the cost of water. Although water shares some characteristics of a commodity, argued Brooks, its crucial role in maintaining human health and ecological well-being makes it impossible for the market to determine a price for such benefits.

Following the panel discussion, members of the audience raised several questions on a range of issues, including the impact of climate change on water resources, policies to protect ground and surface water supplies, and recommendations to reopen the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty.

Drafted by Stephanie McLuhan

  

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