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Published: Sunday, 1/18/2009

Water tensions in U.S., Canada debated at BGSU

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Water tension is on the rise across North America.

It is expected to worsen later this century if Earth's climate warms and its population expands as much as a cross section of experts in the United States and Canada - from independent researchers to government scientists - have predicted.

What effect will that have on the Great Lakes region's natural resources and its political diplomacy along a border once described as the world's friendliest?

That was the theme of yesterday's 22nd Reddin Symposium at Bowling Green State University, an event that BGSU's Canadian Studies Center has held annually since 1988 to help enlighten Ohioans about America's northerly neighbor.

Almost 100 people attended, many of them academic researchers and self-professed policy junkies.

Among other things, they learned that many Canadians already are more paranoid about U.S. motives than they might have realized.

The trio of speakers - two Canadian professors and an American journalist - did not suggest that a calamity was inevitable, but agreed that adjustments need to be made on both sides of the border.

Now is the time to strengthen water policies at all levels or risk further erosion of the binational rapport, they said.

Water, in short, has become a hot issue.

Rob de Loe, professor and research chair of water policy and governance at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, opened the symposium by saying he has "never seen such interest in water" across Canada.

Mr. de Loe said Canadians view their country as the "Saudi Arabia of water," comparing Canada's abundance of water to Saudi oil reserves.

And for good reason: Canada is believed to hold one-fifth of the Earth's fresh surface water and groundwater.

But Mr. de Loe and Andrew Biro, assistant professor and research chair in political ecology and environmental political theory at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, said many Canadians have not been able to put such statistics into the proper context.

Canada has so much water locked down in its frozen tundra or other types of rugged terrain that it actually ranks third behind Brazil and Russia in terms of what's accessible. The United States is sixth or seventh, Mr. de Loe said.

"Most of the water is where most of the people aren't," he said.

Canadians seem to be confused about whether water is plentiful or scarce in their country, Mr. Biro said.

That confusion, to some degree, has affected their perceptions of their superpower neighbor to the south, he said.

Ask his fellow countrymen what it means to be Canadian.

The common denominator? "Not American," Mr. Biro said.

Canadians today see what they consider to be "America imperialism" as something other than military aggression. Their fears have them questioning U.S. motives in anything from professional hockey to water policy, he said.

They've become troubled by the National Hockey League's expansion into Phoenix, Los Angeles, Dallas, Anaheim, San Jose, Nashville, Atlanta, Tampa, and Miami - cities that rarely, if ever, have outdoor ice.

They question if that is a symptom of an economic engine driving water policy toward the Southwest and other parts of the Sun Belt, Mr. Biro said.

Never mind that only two of the NHL's original six teams - the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs - are in Canada.

Mr. Biro noted how one of Canada's most vocal environmental groups, the Council of Canadians, objected to the recently enacted Great Lakes regional water compact because it feared Americans were pushing it through Congress to accommodate thirsty shoreline communities.

"Canadians automatically assume if there are going to be water exports, they're going to the United States," Mr. Biro said.

Peter Annin, a former Newsweek correspondent who wrote a 2006 book about the compact, noted in his talk how the historic agreement was inspired by an Ontario company's 1998 plan to ship Lake Superior water to Asia.

That plan fell through, but exposed loopholes in regional water laws.

The eight Great Lakes states subsequently agreed to form the regional compact to control U.S. withdrawals from the lakes. Their compact was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Bush last year.

Officials spent years negotiating it. They have said it should keep outsiders from getting Great Lakes water, even with controversial exemptions that were built into the agreement for agriculture, the bottled-water industry, and communities that straddle the region's natural basin.

Mr. Annin, an associate director of the Montana-based Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources and coordinator of that group's Great Lakes institute for journalists, said communities that straddle the lakewide basin are eyeing its vast pools of water.

Two cities in Wisconsin - Waukesha and New Berlin - are vying to tap into Lake Michigan.

"It's a brand new era," Mr. Annin said. "It's going to be fascinating to see if the compact is going to work as designed."

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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