Southward flow? Water politics in North America



A bi-weekly publication in support of informed public discourse. Our hope is that we can help make sense of what you are reading in the press by providing some otherwise missing background information.

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Vol 2, No 5  WINTER 2018

Southward flow?

Water politics in North America


As we see it:

Have a cup of water.

  • Water will be the most valuable resource of the future. Wall Street knows this; climate scientists know this; the rest of us don’t.
  • Canada is blessed with fresh water resources, having 20% of the worlds standing fresh water and 7 % of the annual rainfall and snow in the world.   Canada has the highest per capita consumption of water for domestic purposes.  Canadians think that, for Canada anyway, water is inexhaustible. They think that water is a renewable resource as well as a human right.  They think this even though there are areas in Canada suffering serious drought.
  • Canadians do know that the USA is suffering severe water shortages in the mid- west and west, especially California.
  • Many Canadians think that Americans will come for Canadian water in the near future.  Economists argue that Canada should oblige, although, historically, there has been strong political resistance to the export of water.
  • But no one seems to say much about who owns water, or how decision about water use and export are made or even what decisions have already been made.   Is Canada already exporting water?

This Bulletin attempts to get the story right, starting with a new colour chart..


The Colour of Water:


  • Scientists speak of “blue water”.   Blue water is said to be 3 % of the world’s water.  Blue water is found in lakes, rivers and streams.  It is found in vast underground pools (aquifers) in icepacks, snow and glaciers. 
  • Sometimes blue water is called “fresh water” or even potable (drinkable) water but much of the so-called blue water is not very blue (see below).  
  • Blue water is also considered to be a renewable resource, but it is not really renewable either. In many part of the US and Canada, rainfall is insufficient to replenish the blue water being drawn out from rivers and aquifers for domestic, industrial and especially agricultural purposes.   
  • Blue water (rivers) that flows into the ocean is no long blue.  Icecaps and glaciers that melt into the ocean cease to be blue water.  Warmer weather means more evaporation, and hurricanes.  Hurricanes do not produce blue water. Evaporated blue water is water lost to use.



  • Blue water is readily polluted or brined with industrial and agricultural chemicals that leach into water bodies.    Let’s call this “purple water”.  Much blue water is actually purple or quickly becoming so.  Purple water should probably be taken out of use, but often isn’t. 



  • Scientists speak of “green water”.  Green water is the water permeating and sequestered in soil and vegetation. 
  • Rainwater is considered green water if it can be absorbed in the soil, that is, if it is not polluted, or is not washed into the sea or if it doesn’t evaporate.    
  • Controlled flooding of rivers has historically created green water, but uncontrolled flooding does not.



  • Scientists don’t have a colour for saltwater or brined water.  Let’s call this  “turquoise” water. “Turquoise” water includes seawater, but also some of the deeper water in aquifers, the seepage from coastal ocean waters, melted glaciers and icepacks, and brackish water.  



  • Scientists call water used in production and embodied in almost all products, including food,  “virtual water”.   In keeping with our colour chart, let us call this virtual water “orange water”.  
  • When blue water is used to generate fuels and electricity, it becomes orange.   
  • The water used for producing cattle (or avocados and almonds) starts out as blue, but once the meat, avocados and almonds appear on the grocery shelves, the water they embody is orange.  
  • By increasing industrial and agricultural production (economic development and productivity in other words) blue water is increasingly transformed into orange.



  • Let’s add red to the colour scheme, as scientists often do.   Red is water that has been disappeared through drought, diversion or salinization.  Red is becoming the dominant colour of water in parts of the world.


Grey and Black:

  • Scientists speak of “grey” water.  Grey water is water that has been used already and is no longer considered drinkable.  Even so, grey water is used for drinking water in some places.
  • Grey water is usable for industrial, agricultural and many domestic purposes but if, and only if it is collected, stored and put where it is needed.  In some US states it is actually illegal to collect and use grey water.
  • Scientists say that “black” water” is that polluted by human waste.  Black water shouldn’t be considered drinkable, but it is used as drinking water in many impoverished parts of the world.  With much investment, black water can be treated and returned to blue.


Water is finite:

  • Water is finite, whether it is blue, turquoise, purple, green, grey, red, black or orange.  More cannot be created.   However, at some significant cost, both purple and turquoise water can be desalinated or cleaned up. Depending how irrigation is done, the addition of blue water either turns red areas into green, or most of the water is evaporated into the atmosphere.


Will Americans come for Canadian water?

  • The US doesn’t need or want our grey, black or purple water.   But the increased amount of grey, black, purple and turquoise water plus the ever-expanding agricultural and industrial demands upon blue water are the reasons why the US wants Canadian blue water.
  • Canada’s approach thus far has been NOT to treat blue water as a tradable good or commodity, and thus exempt it from NAFTA.  The rationale has been based on blue water’s impact on health and the environment.
  • In the USA, major private corporations are now heavily invested in providing and distributing drinking water and water treatment.  They might well eye Canada water as an opportunity.  Thus far, it is highly unlikely they will succeed because most blue drinking water and water treatment is publicly owned in Canada.
  • However, Americans are not alone in saying that blue water should be treated as a tradable resource, that is, as a “good” or commodity under NAFTA.  As noted, blue water has an ever-increasing market in the USA and Canada.  Economists are likely to say that Canada would benefit.
  • In the past, serious consideration has been given to transporting Canadian blue water to the USA.  Thus far, Canadian policy makers and the courts have prevented the export of blue water.
  • To be sure, the costs of transporting blue water from Canada to the US are very high.  Untapped blue water is located mainly in northern lakes and rivers or snowcap.  But blue water is already transported in pipelines and tankers within the USA, so the possibility of water tankers moving water southward is not out of the question.
  • Further, the price that blue water commands is currently low, but metering of water (a big step towards increasing the value of water and making it attractive as a tradable commodity) is rapidly becoming the norm.


Water as a human right:

  • Blue water can be thought of as a human right.  This is how UN bodies think of blue water. Many Canadian advocate groups agree.
  • Thinking of blue water as a human right establishes first principles.
  • It doesn’t answer the question of who owns and controls water, who can use water for what purposes and who makes decisions.  To answer these questions, water has to be seen as a resource and its ownership is fraught with legal consequences.


Water as a resource:

  • As a resource, water can be privately owned, or state owned or shared between jurisdictions or treated as a common resource.
  • However, even if water is state-owned or if it is understood as a common resource, governments routinely grant licenses, permits or simply allow for the use of water or water rights for whatever purposes they deem appropriate.  Permits or rights to use water are granted to private corporations for agricultural or industrial purposes.
  • In Canada, jurisdiction over water is a mish-mash of federal and provincial laws, various departments and regulations, depending upon where water is located and how it is used. Trade (including of water) falls under federal jurisdiction, but regulation of water use and treatment are provincial, and subject to provincial permits or licenses.   Water policy has been said to be the “poor orphan” of Canadian environmental policy.
  • In the USA, the EPA sets the standards for clean water, but decisions about water use are generally in the hands of the states. The approach taken varies significantly from state to state.
  • In the US, municipalities and local governments likely hold the main responsibility for providing drinking water, and for water and sewage treatment.  When US municipalities lack sufficient funds to do these jobs, they often allow private corporations to take over (buy into) the system or they form partnerships with private firms.  In theory, municipalities and local governments still own and control the water, but for all other intents and purposes, much of US drinking water and water treatment has been privatized.
  • All of which makes Canada’s seemingly very public-minded notions about blue water harder to maintain.


 Canada is exporting water now:

  • American companies already access Canada’s green water when they own farmland in Canada and export crops.
  • Orange water is a tradable resource that falls under the NAFTA.    Let no one underestimate the amount of water involved.
  • Water licenses and permits for blue water can be and are being granted by Canadian government bodies to corporations that are not Canadian-owned.  Although these corporations cannot export blue water directly, they use blue water in their industrial production (making it orange) and thus for export. Oil sands and fracking are among the biggest hogs of water, although in a small but increasing number of cases, grey or turquoise water can be used instead of blue.
  • Then there are the various mega-projects (dams etc.,) that divert or direct the flow of rivers to the USA.  Think of the St. Lawrence Seaway project or the Columbia dam project.  Think of blue water from the Great Lakes that is used to support water systems in US towns that are not directly adjacent to the lakes. To be sure, Canada must have a series of agreements, treaties and Commissions with the USA to deal with competing uses of blue water in shared water bodies.
  • It is fair to say that Canada currently sends much water southward.

So, enjoy your water while you can.

See: Peter Clancy Fresh Water Politics in Canada; various Government of Canada publications; G. Tracey Mehan 111, and David Brooke, Water Abundance in Canada and the United States, Woodrow Wilson International Centre; Jamie Benidickson, working paper; Globe and Mail; Peter H Pearce and Frank Quinn, Recent Development in Federal water: One step forward, two steps back; Fish Smart; Jo-Shing Yno, The New Water Barons: Wall Street Mega-banks are buying up the world’s water; Union of Concerned Scientists; Intelligence Community Assessment: Global Water Security; Michael Nijhuis, The forgotten project that could have saved America from drought; Scientific American: The Ogallala Aquifer; Rhett Larsen, The case for Canadian bulk water exports; Council of Canadians, Corporate Knights, The Case for selling Canada’s water; US Department of the Interior, Reclamation: managing water in the west; Financial Post; Lenntech;; Tides Canada.

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