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I predict that the United States will be coming after our fresh water aggressively within three to five years. We must prepare, to ensure we aren't trapped in an ill-advised response. It would be a major mistake for Canada to handle this issue badly. With climate change and growing needs, Canadians will need all the fresh water we can conserve, particularly in the western provinces.

I've been involved in this issue for years. In the early 1980s, when I was Alberta premier and worked with the knowledgeable Henry Kroeger, then Alberta's minister for water management, he convinced me that we should transfer water from Alberta's more northerly rivers to the dry areas in the southern and eastern parts of our province. When we took the proposal to caucus (we held almost every seat) we were shocked by the aggressively negative reaction.

I learned then that water is an emotional political issue; I was usually able to get support from the caucus -- but not when it came to fresh water.

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As Alberta premier, I'd travel to Washington each spring to lobby U.S. senators for market access to our surplus oil and natural gas (we finally obtained this access through the free-trade agreement). I became friends with the U.S. senator from Washington state, Henry "Scoop" Jackson, who was chairman of the Senate's energy committee. He visited Alberta and was the first senior elected U.S. official to recognize the potential of the oil sands. One evening "Scoop" asked me what I knew about Section 21 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Next to nothing, I responded. He convinced me that it would be a great positive for Canada to take advantage of Section 21 of GATT and secure a free-trade agreement between Canada and the United States.

I took this idea up at my final first-ministers' conference in the spring of 1985, and proposed the concept to then prime minister Brian Mulroney. As history records, he quickly adopted the idea. (The Macdonald Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada was coming to the same conclusion). The free-trade agreement was negotiated with President Ronald Reagan.

After I left government, I worked with the Business Council on National Issues (now the Canadian Council of Chief Executives) to help implement the FTA. Remember, Canada was a supplicant in this matter. In the spring of 1987, a number of us were in Washington making the pitch for the FTA to a group of senior senators. At a crunch time, Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas asked us whether fresh water should be included in the deal. It was quite a moment: I bent down to tie my shoelace, one colleague dropped his book, another colleague dropped his pencil. The moment passed; another senator changed the subject. Fresh water was not included in the FTA. (Had we been pressured, the Canadian strategy, as I recall, was to reject the inclusion of water, but we would have had to trade something else of major value in exchange.)

Fast forward to today. I spend time in Arizona and observe the dryness, the barren riverbeds and the constant concern about water shortage there and in neighbouring states, including California. I talk to a lot of people about water. My political instincts tell me that some time soon water availability is going to rise to the top of the U.S. domestic agenda and the Senator Bentsen of the day will say: "What about Canada? They have lots of excess water and we have the free-trade agreement. Let's demand they share their water with us."

With the population and political shift from the U.S. northeast to Texas, Arizona, Nevada and California, what has not been on the agenda soon will be. My strongly-held view is, we Canadians should be prepared to respond firmly with a forceful "No. We need it for ourselves!"

Why should we not export fresh water?

There are many compelling reasons. Water is essential to our life and its supply is not always certain. Water is essential to our food production, and why increase our dependence on foreign food supplies? Water can be a determinant in job location; let's bring good jobs to Canadians. Finally, if there is an acceptable way for inter-basin transfers, let's confine such to Canada.

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So, how can Canadians prepare for this thirst for our water?

1. Governments and their departments of environment must put out current, reliable data and encourage the exchange of data across Canada. We must include the entire 49th parallel as well as the Great Lakes, which have their own important water issues.

2. The federal government House Leader should join with other house leaders to hold a special "water debate" in the House of Commons no later than next spring.

3. The provincial governments through their premiers should move the water issue to the forefront and prepare for legislative debates next spring, perhaps on a resolution framed as: "Should we export any of our fresh water to the United States?"

4. The first ministers planning secretariat should plan for a late spring meeting with the water issue specifically at the forefront.

5. Private sector research groups across Canada should pick up on the Canada West Foundation's January 2005 report Balancing Act: Water Conservation and Economic Growth (the export issue is targeted on page 16).

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6. Environmental groups and business associations should form an alliance to pressure political parties to make the water issue a priority.

No doubt there will be a significant segment (I'd guess a minority) who either believe the water issue is overblown or that bulk water sales to the United States should not be discouraged. My sense is that once they are alerted to the probability of a U.S. grab for our fresh water, most Canadians will react as the Alberta government caucus did in the early 1980s when they told their then premier: "Get lost!"

I hope that when the time comes, Canada will be ready. The reality is that fresh water is more valuable than crude oil.

Peter Lougheed is a former premier of Alberta.

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