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Maxed Out: What in the fresh-water hell is this?

One summer, travelling from Whistler to Ontario in the mechanically-fickle Mello Yello, my 1982 Volkswagen Westfalia, its 13-gallon water tank ran dry somewhere east of Alberta.
2020-09-06 12.00.38 edited crop with date
Wedgemount Glacier and Tupper Lake in September 2020.

One summer, travelling from Whistler to Ontario in the mechanically-fickle Mello Yello, my 1982 Volkswagen Westfalia, its 13-gallon water tank ran dry somewhere east of Alberta. 

While I was keenly aware how fortunate we are to have drinking water as good as comes out of the taps in Whistler—and it was even better before the federal government mandated draconian rules for water treatment after people died from drinking water in Walkerton, Ont., in 2000, rules that seem to assume everyone’s drinking water, like Walkerton’s, comes from sources just slightly downstream from feedlots—it didn’t dawn on me just how important it was. If I’d have known then what I learned shortly thereafter, I’d have been hauling quite a bit more water.

Somewhere in the prairies I topped up the tank from a potable, municipal water supply using a hose I carried and knew was clean. 

Shortly thereafter, two days into a three-week canoe trip in Quetico Provincial Park, my partner became violently ill. I’ll spare you the gruesome details. The problem was intestinal, the source was contaminated water, the treatment took several weeks, and the canoe trip was a wash.

Canada is home to around seven per cent of the world’s renewable supply of fresh water. Canada’s population is around 0.48 per cent of the world’s population. We have an embarrassment of fresh water. Of course, it’s not evenly distributed and we also suffer an embarrassment of locations that have drinking water so bad they’ve been on boil-water alerts for decades. 

But water we have. And guess who, increasingly, doesn’t have it? 

In the early and middle decades of the last century, the U.S., under the auspices of the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers, built dams in the western states like they were a long lost tribe of beavers. Beavers with massive earth-moving equipment and unlimited supplies of concrete. 

The dams were designed to dam and regulate the supply of water for a growing population and agriculture that couldn’t exist without it—rather than having it all rush down river during spring freshet—generate hydroelectricity and provide man-made lakes for recreation.

After the recent decade’s long drought in those western states, those lakes, particularly Lake Mead behind Hoover dam and Lake Powell behind the Glen Canyon dam, look like half-filled bathtubs with descending rings resembling topographic maps of mountainous terrain. 

The American West is running out of water. 

Every drop of Colorado River water is allocated between the various states it touches and Mexico. Water law is a specialty concentration taught in law schools in those states. With less and less water in the Colorado, the allocations are getting tight. 

The Bureau of Reclamation recently asked states to conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water, and to maintain those cuts for at least several years, to keep lakes Powell and Mead from drying up to the point of no return, something environmentalists have been warning about since the dams were built.

An acre-foot of water is enough to flood an acre of land one foot high. Two to 4 million acre-feet is around 650 billion to 1.3 trillion gallons of water. There’s no easy way to get your head around how much water that is unless you can envision 3 million American football fields sitting in a foot of water each. 

The states have until the middle of the month to come up with a plan. The likelihood of success is zero. The fallback is having the federal government impose a plan. If you think produce from California’s year-round fields is expensive now, just wait.

Efforts thus far have barely put a dent in current water usage. Some are simply absurd. The Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, along with almost every other hotel, has signs urging patrons to conserve water and reuse their bath towels. The Bellagio’s 8.5-acre lake and famous dancing water fountains—1,200-plus jets shooting water as high as 460 feet into the hot, dry desert air — lose around 12 million gallons a year to evaporation. They are not part of the effort.

Ok, fascinating as that is, what’s it got to do with me? Us?

Canada has always been the target of thirsty U.S. states. Friendly neighbour awash with fresh water, lots of water, not lots of people, the No. 1 trading partner, miniscule military, etc. 

The first grandiose plan was outlined in the 1986 book, Cadillac Desert, still a fascinating read, revised and updated in 1993. Ambitiously called the North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWPA)—sounds a bit like a two-year-old trying to say grandpa—the Alliance, devised by the Corps of Engineers (Motto: More slide rules; less guns) drew on a plan developed in the early 1960s by a technology-focused defense, intelligence, security and infrastructure engineering firm then located in California.

It envisioned diverting water from the Yukon, Laird and Peace River systems into a massive reservoir in the Rocky Mountain Trench. The resulting 805-km lake—and I’m not making this up—would feed a navigable waterway from Alberta to the Great Lakes. 

It gets better.

More, most, water would head south, entering the U.S. in Montana. Some would find its way into the Columbia River and some more into the Missouri River, hence into the mighty Mississippi. 

The most ambitious part of the plan would pump water over the Rockies via the Sawtooth Lifts in Idaho and from there into aqueducts to the Colorado and Rio Grande. Some would travel to southern New Mexico and then be pumped north to stabilize the Ogallala aquifer, which has been being drained faster than it refills since the invention, in 1952, of central pivot irrigation, also known as the Wheel of Fortune. That’s what makes those weird green circles in the middle of parched, brown land you see from airplane windows.

I know you must be asking yourself, “Did he say pumped over the Rocky Mountains?”

Yes. Along its proposed course, the flow of water would generate power from hydroelectric and, wait for it, nuclear power stations. The nukes would drive pumps to do the heavy lifting.

Fortunately, the environmental movement came along, gained momentum, and, accompanied by geopolitical and monetary considerations, pretty much killed the proposal. Bear in mind, Prime Minister Lester Pearson looked favourably on the plan in the mid-1960s. And there are, today, players on both sides of the border who still consider Canada to hold the mother lode of what is called by some blue gold, the oil of the 21st century. 

And yes, the two-week heat wave that has finally made the tranquil waters of Sulfuric Lake swimmable have got me thinking about water, Canada and the parched southwest I’ll be heading into later in the fall.