Opinion: The U.S.’s freshwater crisis could lead Washington to look northward. Is Canada ready to quench its thirst?

A formerly sunken boat sits high and dry along the shoreline of Lake Mead at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, on May 10.John Locher/The Associated Press

Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown, and the editor of Harper’s World, a collection of essays on prime minister Stephen Harper’s foreign policy record.

Our closest neighbor to the south has a serious problem – and I’m not talking about racial animus, gun violence or political polarization.

To put it bluntly, a large swath of the US is running out of accessible water. And that is putting the lives of millions of Americans in danger.

Much of the American Southwest, in particular, has struggled over the last 22 years with a megadrought, the worst dry period the region has experienced since at least 800 AD, according to research published earlier this year in the journal Nature Climate Change. Indeed, climate change, growing populations and increased industrial and agricultural usage have only exacerbated this drought. This prolonged spell of extreme dryness has adjusted the way people live, according to Teri Viswanath of CoBank ACB, which is a part of the US Farm Credit System: “Given the length and intensity of drought conditions in the west, there is a growing sense that low hydro availability is the ‘new normal.’ ”

In the desert state of Nevada, for instance, the government is paying homeowners to remove grass from their properties (and thus the need to water it) and to replace it with crushed stone. Just about every casino hotel on the Las Vegas Strip has signs posted about conserving water and reusing bath towels, so as to cut down on washing.

In nearby California, Governor Gavin Newsom has pled with citizens to voluntarily reduce their water usage by 15 per cent, but the call was a flop. As long as people could get water from their tap, many felt that there was no need to implement such a draconian measure. But in June, the US Drought Observatory reported that more than 97 per cent of the state was in “severe, extreme or exceptional” drought conditions. Many of the region’s vital water reservoirs are at half-capacity or less.

In May, strict water regulations for roughly six million southern Californians went into effect. The Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California is now aiming to reduce water use by an unprecedented 35 per cent. “We have not had the supply to meet the normal demands that we have,” said MWD general manager Adel Hagekhalil, “and now we need to prioritize between watering our lawns and having water for our children and our grandchildren and livelihood and health.”

If a Californian were to violate the MWD’s restrictions on lawn watering, he or she would initially face a warning letter, to be followed by escalating fines. According to the Los Angeles Times, the city’s water and power department “will ramp up patrols to look for people violating or wasting water.” And the possibility exists of a full outdoor ban on watering being imposed in September if things don’t improve.

In June, the Biden administration also released an Action Plan on Global Water Security, putting the issue among its top foreign policy priorities. Besides pledging to defuse potential conflicts over access to scarce water resources in various regions of the world, the plan calls for new efforts to ensure that there is enough water to support health care systems and sufficient supplies of food. “Many of our most fundamental national security interests depend on water security,” US Vice-President Kamala Harris said at the announcement.

And so politicians and government officials in Ottawa have a lot of questions to consider if the US’s water crisis continues to be this urgent.

Do we have extra water to spare for our American friends? What could Canada extract from the US in exchange for us diverting huge volumes of fresh water southward?

Over the years, various engineering proposals have been floated to divert significant sums from Canadian freshwater southward. None of them have succeeded in getting off the drawing board. But should that change, given the looming crisis in the US? What infrastructure would be needed to make it happen?

And what would the geopolitical implications be, if the US came knocking on our door about water exports, and Canada unequivocally said no? Would it potentially involve military action?

If the US is going to make a grab for our water anyway, should Canada not try to get something for it? In this new, more delicate era of US-Canada relations, Ottawa may want to consider using water as leverage to secure an end to US border impediments and its contingency protection laws, such as trade tariffs and countervailing duties.

There is one other key question, too: If Canada decides to turn the tap on, will we be able to turn it off later, if we change our mind? I wouldn’t bank on that wishing well.

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