Canadian Arctic Waters Threatened

Rocky Mountain Trench

The NAWAPA proposal would harness major British Columbia rivers and reverse their flows southward through the "Rocky Mountain Trench."

Mississippi River, Memphis, Tennessee

Standing on the shore of the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee, you can see water that was originally destined for Hudson Bay.


How often we alter natural ecosystems to suit our human purposes, rather than altering our behaviour to blend with Nature. Diverting water flowages is one of Man’s favourite ways of “improving” on Nature. Ecosystems that evolved over eons of time are impacted irretrievably by the stroke of an engineer’s pen.

Possibly the most ambitious diversion ever proposed is that known as NAWAPA (the North American Water and Power Alliance). As the name implies, not only electric energy, but the export of water itself would be negotiable under this scheme, which was conceived in the early 1950’s by a planning engineer for the Los Angeles, California, Department of Power and Water.

While the Quebec Hydro James Bay Development harnessed major north-flowing rivers to produce saleable electric energy to the United States at great cost to many ecosystems, the water harnessed for power generation still reaches the Arctic waters of James Bay. It should be remembered, however, that electrical generators become electric motors simply by reversing the polarity, making it possible to pump impounded water uphill for export, when the need (or price) for water exceeds the need (or price) for electric power. The NAWAPA proposal would harness major British Columbia rivers and reverse their flows southward through the “Rocky Mountain Trench”, and thence to southern and eastern markets across mountains, as far away as Mexico, the Mississippi River and the province of Ontario. While this scheme may sound romantic to some, but ridiculous to others, to this day it is still being touted by many “water developers” as the answer to North America’s water needs.

The United States and Mexico would be the big beneficiaries of the NAWAPA plan, but Canada would suffer the worst of the environmental consequences, and they would be phenomenal. An excellent reference to this subject is Canada’s Water – For Sale?, by Richard C. Bocking, (James Lewis and Samuel, 1972). While seemingly somewhat outdated, in reality, this book is now more relevant than ever.

Diversions are by no means a new idea. The Chicago Diversion siphons in excess of 2 billion gallons of water per day from Lake Michigan and re-directs it through Chicago water mains and sewers into the Mississippi River drainage system. Two giant pumping stations situated in Lake Michigan, offshore from the Chicago waterfront accomplish this.

Meanwhile, major impoundments at Longlac and Ogoki Lake in Ontario, divert an amount of water supposedly equivalent to the Chicago Diversion from the north-flowing waters of the Albany River, southward into Lake Superior – effectively altering  Arctic Watershed historic flow patterns. This is not selling water to the United States – it is giving it away and setting a dangerous precedent.

If the human population continues to expand at accelerating rates, coincident with wasteful life styles demanding greater freshwater availability, it is inevitable that Canada will be expected to disrupt northern ecosystems to fulfill these demands. David Brower, a leading American conservationist said: “It seems to me that if Canada follows the argument that to be a good neighbour it must give up its wild streams and its wilderness, it can only make that kind of gift for a short time, then it will have used up its wilderness, its wild streams, and the neighbour to the south will still be thirsty. The neighbour to the south will have grown bigger and bigger and thirstier and thirstier and (then) there will be nowhere else for it to go”.