PUBLISHED: 23 May 2008      Last Edited: 07 February 2022

Guest Columnist: Tom Huffaker

Water Exports

Opinion by Tom Huffaker, U.S. Consul General

As a Californian, I have always known that fresh water is a natural resource that can quickly pass from apparent plenty to scarcity in Western North America. As a Northern Californian, I was weaned on the resentment between the relatively water-rich north and the arid south, to which much Northern water is shipped.

During the droughts of the late 1970s, I lived through water rationing and brown lawns in metered Northern California and experienced frustration as parts of un-metered Southern California kept its lawns green with “our” water. While the “heroic” California civil engineering projects of an earlier era that transferred artificial rivers from North to South yielded real benefits for homeowners, farmers and consumers, they came with very real environmental costs. As a law student in California, I also learned that the way we allocated river water in the American West (prior use doctrine), differed from the eastern approach and is fraught with challenges as populations rose and our economy evolved from farming to a diverse agricultural-industrial-services-technology base.

With this experience with Western water scarcity I arrived in Calgary in mid-2007 to serve as U.S. Consul General in a region engaged in its own water debates.

Let me put it plainly, contrary to persistent rumors, the United States Government does NOT seek and has never sought trans-boundary bulk water transfers from Canada. Nor have I ever seen an economically viable concept for large scale water transfers. We recognize that we have water scarcity and inefficient use problems of our own and that we must solve with our own water resources. We also fully recognize that each country must find its own means of managing those resources.

In the broader context of management of Western water scarcity, however, I believe we can learn a lot from each others’ mistakes and innovations. Through our very limited programming budget we at the Consulate General are, for example, bringing U.S. water policy experts to Western Canada. In September 2007, we sponsored a visit to Alberta and Saskatchewan by Professor Henry Vaux of the University of California at Berkeley and in May, we will support the visit of Professor David Zilberman, also of Berkeley, to speak at the Alberta Agricultural Economics Association’s annual conference in Red Deer. In the future, we plan to bring to the region a leading U.S. researcher on the likely impact of climate change on water resources in the Western U.S.

While water policy in my home state carries challenging legacies in law, infrastructure and tradition, California also offers positive examples. The ever broader use of metering to bring the market to bear on water use has promoted conservation. And early steps in creating truer markets for agricultural water have promoted greater efficiency. At the same time, the decades of struggle between various states over the allocation of Colorado River and the disturbing rate at which we are draining too many aquifers makes clear that we do not have all the answers.

I believe we can learn from Western Canada as regions such as Alberta and Saskatchewan seek to address long-term water use issues before they reach the near-crisis stage that has too often been the context for changes in water policy in the Western U.S. In my view, Western Canada has the opportunity to get many things right that we initially mismanaged. We look forward to conveying lessons learned from your evolving approaches back to the U.S.

I appreciate the opportunity the Alberta WaterPortal has given me to publish this article and hope it is another small step in the ongoing process of exchanging lessons learned on how to manage a precious and scarce resource in Western North America.

Tom Huffaker has been the U.S. Consul General of the United States of America for Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories since August 2006. He focuses on energy and environment, agriculture and making sure that changes at the border enhance our security without burdening the movement of people and commerce.

Interested in a couple other opinions on the topic of Canada-USA Water Exports:

    • Chris Woods book, The Case for Selling Our Water…excerpt “For proof that a little buying and selling of water over the border won’t bring down the sky, you need to get out of committee-rooms and let the Alberta wind ruffle your hair.”


  • Maude Barlow’s opinion in Yes magazine Life, Liberty, Water…excerpt “Now the Pentagon, as well as various U.S. security think tanks, have decided that water supplies, like energy supplies, must be secured if the United States is to maintain its current economic and military power in the world. And the United States is exerting pressure to access Canadian water, despite Canada’s own shortages.”

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