The Walrus

Melting Point

How global warming will melt our glaciers, empty the Great Lakes, force Canada to divert rivers, build dams, and, yes, sell water to the United States

by Chris Wood · paintings by Stephanie Aitken
Environment · From the October 2005 magazine
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An hour south of Lethbridge, Alberta, and twenty minutes from Montana, Milk River is one of the last Canadian towns before the border. The one-block downtown is Prairie minimalist: a Chinese restaurant near a lonely stop sign, beyond it a bank, and across the highway, yellow and green grain elevators. Just west of town, the pavement peters out to a gravel range road, and to the south the Milk River surges with flood water. From the Rockies to Medicine Hat, this usually dry country, where researchers scour barren coulees for dinosaur bones, was awash in six days of uninterrupted rain. Pincher Creek declared an emergency; High River faced its namesake. Though troubling, this spring’s wet weather provided an ironic counterpoint to my objective: to find the century-old Spite Canal, an artifact of Canadian-American history born of drought and embodying the enmeshed nature of the two countries’ relationship with water.

Looking north across treeless hills, I saw a conspicuously straight line emerge from the rain. My rental car vibrated over a Texas gate, and minutes later I scrambled up a grassy embankment. Beyond it was a ditch about two metres deep that followed the contour of the land northward. This crude trench — unmarked, largely unremembered, and now crumbling back into the prairie — is the physical fact on the ground that induced Teddy Roosevelt’s chest-beating America to sign a treaty with Canada that is still lauded today.

Its origins can be traced to the late 1800s when settlers north and south of the forty-ninth parallel relied on two rivers: the St. Mary and the Milk. Both flow from Montana into Canada before diverging; the St. Mary carrying on to Hudson Bay, the Milk turning back into Montana after looping 250 kilometres through Canada. Rising high in the mountains, the snow-fed St. Mary ran strongly all summer; the Milk, born in the foothills, often dried to a trickle. That led the Americans to launch a plan in 1901 to divert water out of the St. Mary and move it across the foothills to the Milk and their ranches in Montana.

Alarmed Canadian homesteaders turned to Ottawa, but Roosevelt ignored Canada’s plea to halt the plan, so the Albertans fought back. If the Americans were going to “steal” water and divert it to the Milk, they would take it back as it flowed north, drastically reducing water levels before it turned back into the United States. In 1903, the Albertans began digging a canal to recapture the disputed water. Washington finally paid attention, and in 1909, the two countries signed the landmark International Boundary Waters Treaty. The International Joint Commission the treaty created had as its first task settling the St. Mary-Milk River dispute, which it did by dividing the water equally.

But all that has not earned the ditch that brought a bumptious young America to heel any credit, or even a wayside historical marker. Back in the car, I rumbled over more Texas gates in search of a local to confirm my findings. Ten minutes later, I came across a house sheltered in a stand of cottonwoods where an elderly gentleman in a plaid shirt and suspenders answered the door. Named Jay Snow, he’s a retired rancher, and he told me the land for kilometres around has been in his family since his Mormon grandfather came north from Utah in the late 1800s. I asked him about the Spite Canal. “I take umbrage at the name,” Snow replied. “There was no spite involved. They were dead serious.”

Canadians are still “dead serious” about water. Coureurs de bois and the ghost of Tom Thomson haunt the misty lakes of our collective subconscious. The effect, too often, is to dissolve reasoned debate about the subject in a solution of mythic imagery infused with implied threats to our identity. A reflexive “aqua-nationalism,” clothed in environmental righteousness, is hostile to any suggestion that Canada’s water could ever become a tradable commodity. The animus is all the more implacable if the discussion involves trading water with Americans — an idea close to treason in some eyes. In this atmosphere it’s easy to ridicule visionaries who dream of replumbing the continent. Nonagenarian Newfoundlander Tom Kierans’s scheme to dike James Bay and pipe water to the US Midwest through the Great Lakes invites a check of the old man’s sanity, and it hardly surprises that right-wing American anti-Semite Lyndon LaRouche is behind a plan to reroute water from the Peace and Liard rivers from northern BC deep into the United States.

But our hostile reductionism is going to become difficult to sustain as greenhouse-gas emissions continue to heat up the planet. New patterns of wind, humidity, and ambient temperature are already dramatically altering the weather map. Some parts of the country are receiving more rain than ever before; other regions are drying up.

In particular, the cold heart of our mythic element — quelques arpents de neiges, as Voltaire called it — is melting. From winter snowbanks to mountain glaciers to northern permafrost, the “cryosphere” — the portion of the earth covered in ice and snow — is thawing. The implications go beyond winter sports and alpine sightseeing. Canada’s multi-billion-dollar investment in water infrastructure was designed to withstand the weather patterns of the past. It will not be able to either contain the massive floods or ameliorate the droughts of the future. A growing number of scientists believe Canadians must begin now to discuss the possibility that major rivers may have to be diverted to rain-starved regions and that massive dams will have to be built to contain runoff from rain in the Rocky Mountains that no longer freezes into snow and ice. “We probably have a decade in which to make a difference, to in some way preserve the economy and social benefits and prosperity that we’ve got,” says Robert Sandford, the Canadian chair of the United Nations Water for Life initiative. “The clock is ticking.”

Floods and drought do not respect borders. As radical as the idea sounds, Canadians, like the pioneers on Milk River a century ago, will have to share their water with the US, through bulk transfers and the management of river systems. Tentative steps toward integrating the North American watershed have already started, with proposals to divert water from Lake of the Woods in northwest Ontario to the Dakotas, and from Shuswap Lake in central BC to the increasingly dry Okanagan, from which it would flow to the US through the Columbia River. One of the largest proposed diversions would reroute water from the Nelson River in northern Manitoba to the US border, earning the province $7 billion annually in export royalties.

Former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed believes the issues surrounding water — both how to share it within Canada and with the US — will soon turn into a weather-driven political crisis. “At some stage of the game in four or five years,” warns Lougheed, who is now a member of the Trilateral Commission, a think tank on emerging international issues, “Washington is going to read the small print, interpret the Free Trade Agreement (fta), and think they have a claim over our fresh water. It’ll be a huge issue. It’s coming.”

Certainly Canada is in no danger of running out of water. In fact, the spring rainstorms I drove through in Alberta, flooding both the Elbow and Bow Rivers in Calgary, were harbingers rather than anomalies. But the distribution of water “wealth” and “poverty” is changing: areas like northern BC will have more than they know what to do with; others, like the Great Lakes Basin, will turn dry. Despite the challenges, the implications are only starting to gain traction with policy-makers. In BC, where weather changes more pronounced than anywhere else in Canada outside the Arctic can be traced back decades, the present holder of the ninety-four-year-old office of Comptroller of Water Rights has only recently turned to the issue. “The science is ahead of the policy,” Jim Mattison concedes.

But those whose livelihoods are on the front line of the new weather fronts are becoming impatient. In the Kootenay mountains of southeastern BC, Kindy Gosal, a manager with the Columbia Basin Trust, is emphatic: “Climate change is happening,” he asserts. “It’s changing our landscapes and changing our ecosystems. We can see glacial recession. I’ve lived in this place for over thirty years and can see, from when I first hiked up to these places, that these suckers are going back. The question is, what do you do about it?”

A couple of mountain ranges away, Okanagan Valley orchardist Lorraine Bennest straightened from a shallow ditch where she was installing irrigation pipe to scan several thousand apple saplings she had just planted. Small, wiry, and fierce, Bennest scowled beneath the straw hat covering her steel-grey hair. Her new orchard cost $30,000 an acre to plant, and she hopes to turn a profit by 2012. But she’s worried: winter snow is disappearing from the hills above her orchard in Summerland ( just north of Penticton), and the valley’s growing population is putting new demands on Trout Creek, the village water source, which depends on winter snows. “If we’re going to run out of water,” Bennest says, “don’t talk to me in twenty years. Talk to me now!”

Differentials of temperature, humidity, and salinity drive primeval currents in a meandering global courtship of ocean and air that, broadly speaking, transports heat from the tropics to the frozen poles. In this Gaia dance, rain and snow are accidental by-products of thermodynamics — “precipitates” shed when stateless air masses cross invisible boundaries of dew- and frostpoint. Now, rising temperatures are heating up the tempo of this global dance. As melting ice dilutes salty oceans, clouds vanish over disappearing forests. Greenhouse gases and industrial smog are also reformulating the atmosphere, and, perhaps, as the planet tilts on its axis, or flares of charged particles lick out toward us from the sun, the differentials that drive the dance are changing places.

Scores of researchers have been recording visible changes in local climates, from the number of floods in Newfoundland to the annual evaporation of water from Great Slave Lake. Three substantial efforts have surveyed this growing body of science. Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation: A Canadian Perspective, prepared by Natural Resources Canada, and Environment Canada’s Threats to Water Availability are thorough analyses of climate change. Vulnerability and Adaptation to Climate Change, jointly published by Global Change Strategies International Inc. and the Meteorological Service of Canada, drills most deeply into the underlying research.

All three documents maintain that as temperatures rise, there is actually more water, not less, coursing through the global heat pump — a result of the thawing of glaciers and ice sheets. More water plus more energy, traversing the same geography over the same period of time, means storm fronts pack a heavier, wetter, hotter punch. But that doesn’t necessarily lead to more water in lakes and rivers, because warmer temperatures are also inducing dramatic increases in evapotranspiration (ET) — science’s word for water breathed out by plants and vaporized from lakes and streams. In the central areas of the country, evaporation is taking place faster than precipitation, not only sucking any extra rainfall back into the air, but also drying out lakes, reservoirs, and fields. The extreme humidity caused by evaporation that plagued much of central Canada this summer may be a dramatic example of what is to come. “We’re in for an accelerating set of trends beyond what we’ve seen since 1970,” says Ottawa hydrologist James Bruce, lead author of the Meteorological Service of Canada study. “They’re scary.”

How weather patterns will finally settle down is not entirely in focus. But the outlines are unmistakable: more rain and snow in the northern Rocky Mountains, while the Prairie and Great Lakes regions dry out. In almost every region of the country, global warming is leaving behind less snow and piling more rain into fewer late winter and spring storms, which are followed by longer, warmer, drier summers. The effects are least pronounced in Newfoundland and Labrador, where temperatures have actually cooled by 0.7°C in the last fifty years. Precipitation, on the other hand, has been increasing, but almost entirely due to greater winter, spring, and autumn snowfalls. Despite this, many rivers in the region experience lower flows in late summer.

With more land mass than any other province, and 3 percent of the planet’s fresh water, Quebec reflects the national conundrum of higher average precipitation with less water available in populated regions. The province has enjoyed relatively large increases in rainfall and snowfall during the last century. But the Meteorological Service concluded that most of that has come in Quebec’s northern reaches, while more than 95 percent of Québécois live in the St. Lawrence River watershed in the south.

For more than twenty years, scientists have tracked conditions at dozens of lakes upriver from Montreal, in the northwestern portion of the Great Lakes Basin. “During this period,” the Meteorological Service noted, “air temperature increased, precipitation decreased and average annual evaporation increased by approximately 50 percent.” The cumulative effect on flows out of the lakes to the St. Lawrence may be dramatic, with the river losing up to 40 percent of its volume at Montreal. Any drop in water levels in the Great Lakes approaching that scale will send shock waves through the country’s richest economy. “I worry about the fact that hydro power production in the Great Lakes system has been declining [because of falling water levels] and will probably continue declining,” says Bruce. “So they’ll have to fire up more coal- or oil-fired generation, or gas-fired, further increasing greenhouse-gas contributions.”

The comparative simplicity of the Prairie economy provides little comfort. Projections are for less winter snow, but increased spring rains will fail to offset faster summer evaporation, leading to drier soils and less water in streams. “In the past thirty years,” the Meteorological Service found, “trends have become more significant . . . . Things are changing more rapidly.” In fact, during the region’s most recent drought, in 2001, Saskatoon was 30-percent drier than at any time in the last 110 years.

Those developments pale against dramatic trends in the Rocky Mountains, which have consequences as far east as Manitoba. The linkage involves the major rivers flowing out of the Rockies, which provide much of the water used by three provinces. The ultimate sources of most of these rivers are mountain glaciers and snowpack. Now both are disappearing as the cryosphere succumbs to global warming. Instead of the glaciers and snowpack acting as natural “dams” holding back water for summer use, rain fails to turn to snow, and floods quickly through the system. The result is less water as the summer progresses.

“Along the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains,” concludes Environment Canada’s Climate Change Impacts report, “glacier cover is now approaching the lowest experienced in the past 10,000 years.” Later freeze-ups, earlier springs, and milder winters all cut further into snow accumulation. “In the central interior we’ve got about five decades [of data] with about a 10-percent-per-decade decrease in snow depth,” says Mattison, BC’s comptroller of Water Rights. “The total snowpack is lower and lower.”

Some 70 million people in a dozen states and four provinces, and cities from Edmonton to Los Angeles, rely on rivers flowing from the snow-capped Rockies. To put that into perspective, California relies on water saved in snow and icefields for about half its annual requirements. Should even one-third of the snowpack vanish, the state would either need to build the equivalent of 300 more reservoirs or annually import roughly eight times the water contained in all of Alberta’s existing reservoirs.

The collapsing cryosphere is one reason why BC has the highest rate of climate change among the provinces. The other is a shift in rainfall patterns. “The province has some of the wettest (coastal mountains) and driest (southern interior) places in southern Canada,” the Meteorological Service notes, adding: “Virtually all Canadian records for precipitation have been set in BC.” During certain times, and in certain regions, there is too much water. In fact, total precipitation over the province has been increasing by 4 percent a decade for as long as the snowpack has been shrinking. “We may not have less water [overall] as a result of climate change,” contends Mattison. “We may have more.”

The same province gives a dramatic illustration of the dangers from evaporation as temperatures rise. Soil scientist Denise Neilsen studies how crops grown in the Okanagan, where in most years irrigated orchards and vineyards use every drop of water available to them, will respond to higher temperatures. Within the lifetime of Lorraine Bennest’s new orchard, Neilsen says, her Ambrosia apples and other valley crops will need to “transpire” at least 12 percent more water, leading to dramatic increases in demand. “As we move through the century, the crisis is going to occur more frequently,” Neilsen says. “I’m very worried for this valley.”

All three reports make it clear that Canada will have more rainfall in the future. But it may not count for much because we also stand to lose more as higher temperatures increase evaporation. Our problem, once again, is not supply but distribution. Some areas, like the heavily populated Great Lakes Basin, will face severe shortages, while parts of the Rockies will be awash in water. We are left with Kindy Gosal’s question: “What do we do about it?”

Earlier this year, an international climate change task force led by US Republican senator Olympia Snowe and former British Labour cabinet member Stephen Byers, gave humanity less than a decade to act before average temperatures rise more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. “Above [that] level,” it warned, “the risks of accelerated or runaway climate change increase. The possibilities include . . . the loss of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, the shutdown of thermohaline [convection] ocean circulation and with it, the Gulf Stream [which warms western Europe], and the transformation of the planet’s forests and soils from a net carbon sink to a net source of carbon.”

Canada’s response must address the implications of this new weather reality. But some of the options will shatter Canadian taboos about selling water to the US, building massive dams, and diverting major rivers. Even before then, increasing demand for water in border regions will almost certainly collide with climate change to “require adjustment of formal and informal criteria and legal instruments used for managing binational water resources,” as the authors of Threats put it. Translated: we’ll need to open our minds to new ways of sharing water and its management with the United States. Whichever strategy we choose, we do not have much time. Approving and building waterworks take decades; changing attitudes, especially if they involve assets steeped in symbolism, will take even longer. Whatever we want in place by 2025, we must begin to prepare within the next ten years.

The most immediate challenge is how to resolve intensifying competition for water. Conventional “soft path” thinking insists that when demand exceeds supply, aggressive conservation should bring the two back into line. But conservation has its limits. In southern Nevada, where authorities have spent tens of millions of dollars to encourage conservation and recycling, demand will soon outgrow supply. In Canada, where agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of water consumption, longer growing seasons may allow for double harvests, with a corresponding increase in demand for water. But will we say no to food in order to save water? We cannot simply conserve our way out of finding some equitable process for allocating this resource. “There are an increasing number of conflicts about how much water each person should have and what it should be used for,” says University of Lethbridge economist Dan LeRoy. “Which is a better way to handle those: through markets, or a central authority? There is no third way.”

Alberta is the first province to permit the buying and selling of water rights. But wary aqua-nationalists, fearing a rapacious America, have bitterly resisted wider consideration of commerce in water. Any transaction involving bulk water, they argue, even one conducted entirely within Canada, risks triggering trade commitments that would render Canada powerless to deny American demands for our water. “Floodgates will be opened and neither the provinces nor Ottawa can stop US diversions,” insists Council of Canadians water campaigner Sara Ehrhardt.

In fact, the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement and its successor, nafta, are largely silent on water. Both, however, adopted a system for classifying traded goods, including water, that was originally codified under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (gatt). This classification system has since been incorporated into all World Trade Organization agreements, and if Canada treats any bulk volume of water as a “good” under the gatt description, Ehrhardt insists, it will effectively declare all water in the country open to a form of globalized commerce in which foreign companies and customers cannot be treated less favourably than Canadians. “Consider a diversion project hypothetically undertaken in southern Alberta to provide drought relief,” the Canadian Environmental Law Association suggests in a brief. “The US agricultural sector, under the national treatment provisions of the fta, is well within its rights to assert that if the United States pays to provide sufficiently large catchment [in neighbouring] basins, then US farmers have a right — equal to Canadian farmers — to the benefits of the project.” The Americans, they concluded, can, indeed, “turn on the taps.”

The “open tap” argument, though, ignores a significant legal distinction between “natural” water in rivers or lakes, and water that has entered commerce and become a “good” in trade terms — bottled water, for example. Under nafta it is up to sovereign governments to allow — or disallow — any volume of water to be removed from “nature” and traded as a commercial “good.” Furthermore, asserts a Canadian government backgrounder to reforms in 2001 to the International Boundary Waters Treaty Act, “even if some water is extracted from its natural state, the remaining water in the source from which that was drawn still constitutes water in its natural state, and therefore is still not a good.” Put another way: if Canada chooses to direct “natural” water to a commercial tap, our laws must treat American purchasers no differently than Canadian ones, but Canada still decides how much water reaches the tap.

The battle to inject reason into the coming debate over the sale of water will be hard. Lougheed still recalls the backlash he faced in office when he suggested diverting 80 percent of Alberta’s northern water to the south, where most of its people live (an idea whose time he still thinks will come). Lougheed regards water first and last as a natural resource. Like oil, it is a prize of geography to be used in the public interest, and beyond the scope of the fta — unless Canada mistakenly puts it there. “I’m pretty hardline on this. It’s not in the fta. We didn’t have to put it in. We did not put it in and it’s not there.”

Lougheed speaks with some authority: he was at the table in Washington, as leader of the group representing Canadian business interests. “We had a delicate fifteen minutes in which there was a discussion raised by Senator Bentsen of Texas,” he says, “on the basis of, ‘Well, shouldn’t fresh water be included?’ And we all kind of tied our shoelaces, dropped our pencils, looked out the window, and the moment passed.”

In the future, Lougheed maintains the Americans will argue that there are sections in that trade agreement implying that fresh water was intended to be included. What would he do when that happens? “I’d be very much of the view,” he says, “that we not get involved in negotiations that imply you’re prepared to accept that you’re into free trade in water. Once you do that you lose your leverage. I’d pick a firm policy position and stick with it. It’s our sovereign water and we do not need to give it up.”

The second broad impact — the shift from snow to rain — will force even environmentalists to reconsider their aversion to building dams. This is a comparatively recent phobia. Some 900 large reservoirs and several thousand smaller ones already dot our landscape. They form, in essence, a giant timeshifting device that captures part of the snowmelt each spring and stores it for later distribution. With diminished snowpacks providing less natural storage, UN Water for Life chair Sandford observes, “We’re going to end up having to have more storage facilities, [which] means more dams in places [where] people are so pissed off that you’re going to have wars over it.”

Environmentalists may soon be among those clamouring to have dams built, as shifting rain and snow patterns threaten wildlife as well as humans. No less an ecological champion than Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute and America’s leading water advocate, says: “The soft path (conservation) doesn’t mean we stop building dams and aqueducts.” In his authoritative biennial survey, The World’s Water, Gleick wrote that “reservoir systems buffer modest hydrologic changes. As a result, the effects of climate change on [managed] systems tend to be smaller.” And researchers at the National Water Research Institute in Burlington, Ontario, point out that, “unmanaged water systems and systems that are currently stressed are the most vulnerable.” After cresting early in 2004 on a muchdiminished snowpack, the Fraser River, for example, ran so low that, for the first time on record, some pools warmed to 20°C — a temperature that can be fatal to salmon.

If we can imagine environmentalists lobbying for more dams to “Save the Sockeye,” it’s possible to envision a change of heart on diverting water from one river to another. Nature “put water where it belongs,” Maude Barlow wrote in her 2001 polemic, Blue Gold. Humans who “tamper” with nature’s allotment, she implied, are unwise.

We have been, then, an unwise nation, diverting more water than any other country. “Our very daily comfort and economic activity rest, to a certain extent, on major river diversions,” says Laval University geographer Frédéric Lasserre. And according to the Threats survey: “Nature has provided an environment amenable to surface water manipulation in Canada. More impressive even than the general abundance of surface fresh water is the density of interconnected and almost-connected lakes and rivers that make up our drainage network.”

In the last decade, Ottawa and most provinces have banned major river diversions. Their motives had little to do with the environment, however. Instead they sought to bar exports to the United States on legal grounds unrelated to commerce — and hence, they hoped, beyond challenge under trade agreements. But the number of smaller inbasin diversions is growing and may be signalling a shift in attitudes. Soon, the South East Alberta Water Co-op will open the last valves of a pipe system bearing foothills water from the Milk River to 135 homesteads and fifteen Hutterite colonies near the Saskatchewan border. Each co-op member paid $26,000 for enough water to support a garden and livestock. The deal, says co-op president Harold Halvorson, “gives a little satisfaction to life on the bald-headed prairie: a small patch of green and a few shrubs.”

But as rainfall patterns move northward, some southern communities will be forced to look beyond their own watersheds. One proposal, says BC’s Jim Mattison, is to divert water from the Shuswap Lake, near the parched Okanagan. If diverted, water that now flows into the Fraser River would move through the valley and empty into the American reaches of the Columbia River. Integrating river management in such a way would mean using dams along the entire river system for the explicit benefit of both nations, even if that sometimes means delivering “Canadian” water to “American” users. “We can no longer afford,” Gleick argues, “to pretend these international watersheds are separate.”

It is a Hobson’s choice for aqua-nationalists: either more dams to contain contain water inside Canada or more deals with Americans to manage existing reservoirs for common ends. “The stresses of climate change make co-ordinated binational management of Great Lakes waters (as well as other boundary waters) more imperative,” notes the Meteorological Service. “Resolving these issues may involve changing current policies or legislation.”

It’s open to speculation what a little horse-trading would accomplish. Might North Dakota’s plan to divert water from its polluted Devils Lake into Manitoba be moderated if Canada entertained the state’s desire to start piping in water from Lake of the Woods by mid-century? The model of the future may be the Columbia River, where a forty-four-year-old treaty governs the joint management of tributary rivers that flow back and forth over the border. “The Columbia has been a real co-operative development,” says Kindy Gosal. “We need to build on that. You can’t have an ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’ attitude.”

Co-operating with their American neighbours seems to come more easily to westerners. The South East Alberta Water Co-op might have signed up even more members, says co-op president Halvorson, were it not for the “bureaucrats and urban do-gooders” who prevented them from enlisting Americans. “If I could have gotten water to the border we could have gotten more patrons,” he says. “It would have been cheaper for everyone.”

The same approach has also brought together historic rivals from either side of the forty-ninth parallel. From his ranch-style home tucked among the trees where a range road dead-ends at the Milk River, grass-seed grower Ken Miller, a self-styled “dirt-guy” with a graduate degree in economics, is leading a campaign to build a new dam on the river. “It would allow us to add another fifteen to twenty thousand acres of irrigated operation,” Miller argues. “It could make the difference for a little town like Milk River to live or die.”

Unlike people a hundred years ago, he’d like to share with the neighbours. “I have friends and relatives on the other side,” Miller says. “They’re in a very difficult situation. They run out of water about half the years.” The other side is also reaching out. “If we could go along with the Canadians in building that dam,” says Kay Blatter, chair of a board representing eastern Montana irrigators, “and have some extra storage in there for us, that’d be a win-win.”

Manitoban Dan Klymchuk has a bigger scheme in mind. A former real estate specialist, Klymchuk proposes building an $18-billion pipeline to convey nearly five billion cubic metres of water annually from the Nelson River where it enters Hudson Bay to the US border. Klymchuk believes his pipeline could earn the province $7 billion a year in resource fees. “There’s no reason we couldn’t send some to dry parts of Saskatchewan or to Alberta,” he says. “It can help us — and it’s all paid for by Americans.”

That model has worked well in the past. American financial muscle and demand for power made reservoir construction on the Columbia River and Hydro Quebec’s James Bay project possible. For contemporary Canadians, such deals are deeply provocative. “There’s a group out there that is intensely anti-American,” Klymchuk says. “If it were Britain, they’d sell water to them in a minute. They just don’t want to sell it to the Americans; they see it as feeding the big American war machine.”

If climate change unfolds without effective countermeasures, as seems probable, declines of up to 40 percent in the Great Lakes may even prompt an examination of Tom Kierans’s idea — similar to Klymchuk’s — of capturing fresh water entering James Bay to replenish the Great Lakes, an undertaking imaginable only as a continental co-venture. “People automatically assume that if you share water with the US, you end up with less water in Canada,” says Kierans. But with his Great Recycling And Northern Development (grand) Canal concept, he insists, “You end up with more.”

By then, another development could shatter whatever remains of Canadian intransigence. A climate-change time bomb will go off in the Arctic if peat, frozen for centuries beneath northern muskeg, begins to thaw and decompose — releasing billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases. “Canada’s peatlands are overwhelmingly important,” notes Threats. They “contain twentyfive times the amount of fossil-fuel carbon released each year by the entire world.” If released, the peat would initiate a feedback loop that could kick global warming into the catastrophic range. There may be only one way to forestall that outcome: keep the muskeg from drying out. “As long as the peatlands remain saturated,” Threats asserts, “the carbon will remain in stable storage.”

An urgent search for water to flood expanses of muskeg could rehabilitate elements of the North American Water and Power Alliance — better known by its acronym, nawapa. Conceived in 1964 and adopted by Lyndon LaRouche’s Schiller Institute as part of its program to “restore the United States,” nawapa would divert water from northbound rivers in BC, such as the Skeena and the Peace, both destined to swell as precipitation increases in the northwest. A future generation of Canadians might choose to tap some of the same watersheds to keep the peatland carbon “sink” safely locked in. By then, who knows, an America eager to make up for lost time on climate change might agree to contribute the billions of dollars needed to complete the project in exchange for diverting some of the water south.

After parting from Jay Snow, I spent a little longer in the Milk River valley. Twenty minutes farther down the highway was the Canada-US border-inspection post at Coutts, Alberta, and Sweetgrass, Montana. The building was new, only the second post designed to accommodate both American and Canadian officials in a single building. Beneath the scrub grass that surrounds the two small communities (combined population 460), there is a longer-running metaphor for cross-border amity. Here, for forty years, water withdrawn by the village of Coutts from the Milk has flowed through a pipeline to American homes served by Sweetgrass’s only formal governing body, the Water and Sewer Board. Whether that constitutes a “sale” is open to interpretation. “We buy our water from Coutts,” says board member Helen Von Ruden. “We have for as long as I’ve lived here. We pay per gallon.” Coutts’s mayor, Jamie Woodcock, says the arrangement has worked well. When Coutts upgraded its water treatment, Sweetgrass shared the cost. But “we don’t sell it to them,” he insists. “We charge a fee for delivering and chlorination. We’re not actually selling the water.”

As I left, I stole glances to the west, searching again for signs of the Spite Canal in the silhouetted hills. Grey curtains of rain drifted across the saturated land. Within weeks, Jay Snow’s neighbours would again be complaining that their fields were too dry, as the Gaia dance of air and ocean continued to heat up, drawing more moisture from the soil. A century ago, the Alberta and Montana ranchers who battled over the Milk River may have unwittingly forged a solution to our emerging conflict with water when they finally co-operated. Perhaps it’s time to stop feeling about water and start thinking about it.
Chris Wood is an award-winning journalist living on Vancouver Island. He is a co-author of Blockbusters and Trade Wars: Popular Culture in a Globalized World.
Stephanie Aitken's series of paintings, entitled Headlands, explore the majestic landscapes that the artist says "call to mind an end to things, or, at least, to what we believe changeless." Aitken teaches at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design and at the University of British Columbia.