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peter mckenna

Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.

Having just returned from California, it is not hard to tell that the state is experiencing a major water crisis – it is now entering its fifth year. Everywhere, there are signs admonishing people to conserve water: "Save one drop," "Drink wine, not water," and "Water-wise toilets."

The Golden State has had emergency water conservation regulations in place for almost two years now. These include restrictions on washing cars, on watering lawns, driveways and sidewalks, and on serving water (other than upon request) at drinking and eating establishments. All of these measures (and more) are designed to foster a culture of water conservation in California.

Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti recently amended his city's emergency drought plan to increase penalties for those caught flagrantly wasting water. The Department of Water and Power will now be in a position to fine citizens anywhere from $1,000 to $40,000 a month for what it classifies as "unreasonable use." In fact, fines for watering your property at the wrong time of the day or for using a hose to wash away dirt from your driveway will increase from $300 to a new maximum of $1,200. All of the revenue from the fines will go back into the department's various conservation programs.

Apparently, the stiffer fines were in response to a wealthy Bel-Air homeowner – who couldn't care less about the city's record drought and punitive penalties – for using 11.8 million gallons (45 million litres) of water in one year (when the average household uses an estimated 130,000 gallons annually). Under the new rules, those with higher usage could also face a water-use analysis of their home by the Water Department – indicating what a reasonable amount of water usage would be and where it could reduce any water waste.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Bay Area water agency is in the process of eliminating their fines on chronic water hogs. With a wet winter and concerted efforts at water conservation, the agency has determined that financial penalties are no longer warranted. The agency is still asking Bay Area residents to abide by last year's call for a 20-per-cent cutback in water usage, but it will not be enforcing fines for overuse of up to $1,000.

It has not, however, said whether it will stop publishing the names of those violators (a practice known as drought-shaming) who exceed the area's water-rationing regulations. One of the biggest users of water "outed" last year was Chevron vice-chairman George Kirkland, who averaged something like 12,578 gallons of water a day at his palatial estate (instead of the district's policy of no more than 1,000 gallons a day).

With California's growing population, the intensification of climate change, and the enormous importance of water-supported agriculture to the state's economy, the issue of water scarcity is unlikely to disappear any time soon. At some point, California may look to Canada – and its purported abundance of fresh water (which is highly questionable) – as a means of readily quenching its thirst.

It wasn't that long ago that the Montreal Economic Institute argued that water exports could be a huge boon to deeply indebted Quebec. It pointed out that the equalization-payment-receiving province could earn as much as $65-billion annually by exporting roughly 10 per cent of its supply of renewable fresh water.

Clearly, Canadians and our governments need to start planning for the very real possibility of the United States approaching us about sharing our water resources with water-challenged Americans. What should we say to them? Should we try to get something substantive in return from the United States (like actual secure access to the U.S. marketplace and not the promise of access that was achieved through the 1988 Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement)?

Moreover, should we simply seek to cash in on exporting our water southward? Will we be able to turn off the tap once we turn the water on? Should we not first take stock of how much water is actually available to Canadians? Do we not have our own drought problems and climate change challenges?

Canadians need to think long and hard about the implications for Canada of exporting water to the United States. Indeed, the last thing we need is for our political leaders to be ill-prepared when the U.S. "ask" inevitably comes.

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