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Canadians fearful of U.S. water grab
Las Vegas Sun


May 30, 2006

LAS VEGAS -- We took their hockey, their oil and their beer. Now Canadians fear we will try to take an even more basic resource.

Specifically, the 32 million-strong country with the longest contiguous border with the United States fears that thirst will drive the American Southwest to tap water sources in the Great White North.

A front-page story in Maclean's, a Canadian news weekly, warned late last year that "America is thirsty," and featured the impact of drought on Lake Mead and Las Vegas. The Council of Canadians, a 20-year-old progressive political group, blared, "Water Fight!" in its magazine last month and urged Canadian citizens to block water exports.




The concern is echoed south of the border. The American Prospect, a monthly magazine with liberal leanings and offices in Boston and Washington, warned last month that the United States could "Drain Canada." Author Jon Margolis said readers should "prepare for the coming Canadian water war."

Federal and regional officials say the Canadians are barking up the wrong maple tree.

"We've got no desire or direction to go up to Canada," says Ken Albright, resource director for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which provides the wholesale water for nearly all residential and business users throughout urban Las Vegas.

The Water Authority is already working to win federal and state approval of plans to pump water from rural Nevada to Las Vegas.

Extending the pipelines planned for White Pine County another 800 or so miles is not in any of the agency's long-term resource plans, Albright says.

"Heck, we've got problems going 200 miles north," he says, referring to opposition in the rural areas to the ground water pumping plan.

Albright and his colleagues, however, are not strangers to some audacious proposals to help moisten the arid Southwest. Proposals have included diverting the Columbia River of the Pacific Northwest, building a pipeline to the Great Lakes of the United States and Canadian Midwest, and ferrying icebergs or giant plastic bags of water from Alaska to Southern California.

In 1964, a politically well-connected California engineering firm, the Ralph M. Parsons Co., now Parsons Corp., proposed a huge water distribution system that would tie the Great Lakes to Canada's Pacific Coast, with pipelines extending to Texas, Southern California and Southern Nevada. The North American Water and Power Alliance was never built, but it would have connected Canadian water supplies to 33 U.S. states and even Mexico.

In 2001 President Bush helped re-ignite Canadian concerns with an offhand comment that the country should consider water exports to the United States.

Despite official interest, though, the alliance and the other proposals have never come close to fruition, and some - the proposals for the Columbia River and Great Lakes - have sparked formal government opposition - and howls of protest - from Canada and interests in the United States.

Albright says that past the Water Authority's 50-year planning horizon, some water plans that now seem like science fiction could one day become reality.

"Water issues in the world are going to require people to rethink their ownership issues, and they already are to some extent, but that is not an overnight thing by any means," he says.

Bob Walsh, a 32-year veteran of the Bureau of Reclamation, says he has seen proposals for various intercontinental water exports come and go. The Columbia River proposal, for example, "was one of those real what-if things."

In 1965 Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a powerful legislator from Washington state, pushed through legislation that prohibited the federal government from diverting the river.

Nonetheless, the Columbia River idea and other mega-projects tend to resurface every few years, Walsh says, especially when there is a drought on the Colorado River, the source of Las Vegas' drinking water.

But, he says, "these things are just economically virtually impossible and raise huge environmental issues."

Local and federal officials in Nevada note that while Canadians fear the growth of the urban demand on the Colorado River, about 70 percent of the water used in the lower river basin - the hot Southwest that includes Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas - goes to agricultural needs.

Hal Rothman, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas historian and Sun columnist, says there is a lot of water in Alaska as well as Canada, but the question is how to move all that liquid: "The problem right now is technological. There is no efficient way to bring large amounts of fresh water to the desert from Canada or Alaska."

He notes that while Canada and Alaska have water, Las Vegas has money. Eventually, that could grease the skids for some sort of swap.

"Once a reasonable technological model is created, the only thing stopping such a transfer is politics, and we know what money does to politics," Rothman says.

Jim Deacon, a UNLV professor emeritus of environmental studies, says the biggest problem with bringing water from Canada is that there are alternatives that would be far cheaper: "Nothing is impossible, but it just sounds like such an expensive proposal compared to other options that are available. There are a lot of options there that are likely to be more practical, more technologically feasible and cheaper than going to Canada."

The cost of desalting ocean water has dropped below $900 for an acre-foot of water, or about 326,000 gallons, and continues to fall, Deacon says. The cost for pumping water to Las Vegas from Lake Mead is now about $250 an acre-foot. While there are no estimates for the cost of bringing water to Las Vegas from Canada, Deacon expects that would be higher .

Despite the doubters, the specter of water exports is likely to continue to scare our neighbors. Sometimes even those who try to quell those fears perpetuate the concern.

Amber Thompson, a spokeswoman for Parsons Corp., says the company has no designs on Canadian water: "There is no proposal to divert water from Canada to the U.S."

But Thompson also provided literature from her company that says the model for the massive pipelines described in Parsons' 1964 plan is still on display in the company's Los Angeles headquarters.

In the story about the company's history, the pipeline possibility is kept alive by the model: "This solitary monument greets those who visit Parsons' water group as a symbol of what might have been - and could still be."


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