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Canada's Dry on Exporting Water

US entrepreneur wants to quench the Southwest with tankers of Canada's water. But NAFTA foes fight him.

By Ruth WalkerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 15, 1998


With about two-thirds of the world's fresh water, Canada is arguably to water what Saudi Arabia is to oil. But Canadians are divided over how - or whether - to exploit their water resources commercially. They're especially concerned that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has surrendered their sovereignty over their own lakes, rivers, and aquifers.

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And as California entrepreneur Jack Lindsey sees it, Canada is blocking development of an emerging worldwide industry. His half-a-billion-dollar lawsuit against British Columbia may help settle the issue.

In Mr. Lindsey's view, millions of people in the dry American Southwest could benefit from just a fraction of the fresh water that splashes across British Columbia on its way back to the Pacific Ocean every year. His suit, filed after a provincial government policy shift left him unable to fulfill a contract, has been stalled in court.

But assistant US trade representative Jon Huenemann has taken up the matter with senior Canadian officials. "As we discuss the full range of trade and investment issues with Canada, and several also specifically with British Columbia, we will raise with them our desire to have this contract dispute resolved," he wrote to Lindsey's lawyer, John Carten of Comox, British Columbia.

"We've changed the venue to the United States government," Lindsey says.

The whole issue gained new visibility a few weeks ago. John Febbraro, president of the Nova Group in Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario, obtained a permit from the Ontario government to draw water out of Lake Superior. His plan was to ship the water by tanker for sale in Asia. After a firestorm of criticism on both sides of the US-Canadian border, Ontario announced it would cancel the permit.

It was never clear how water tankered through the St. Lawrence Seaway and then the Panama Canal could cost-effectively slake mass thirst in China.

But the picture is different in British Columbia: It is much closer to Asia and other markets, and it's wetter. Some 400 million acre-feet of water spill into the Pacific from the province annually. Rain falls on Canada's "Wet Coast," as lawyer Carten puts it, "in annual deluges that would make Noah feel at home."

Not everyone agrees with this view, however. Richard Bocking, an agricultural economist in Victoria, British Columbia, says flatly, "The concept of surplus water is erroneous." He warns accidents could happen if tankers - oil-fueled even if not oil-laden - plied the ecologically sensitive estuaries of British Columbia.

If Canada closes the gate on bulk-water exports, entrepreneurs in Alaska would like to supply the demand. "We're ready to go," says Ric Davidge, president of Alaska Water Exports in Juneau.

No one is yet transporting fresh water in oil-tanker-type vessels (very large crude carriers, or VLCCs). But smaller tankers as well as barges and "bladders" - giant water balloons, in effect - are in use to haul smaller volumes over shorter distances - in the Middle East, for instance. During the Gulf War, American forces were supplied with water tankered in from Turkey.