The Montreal Economic Institute, a Quebec think-tank with expertise in business and public policy, has just released a new report that should generate plenty of heated responses from mild-mannered Canadians. The report, “Freshwater exports for the development of Quebec’s blue gold,” suggests that Quebec has a “surplus” of freshwater that could be exported to generate $65 billion in gross annual income. The report arrives at this conclusion by assuming that Quebec could sell and export 10% of its annual renewable and available freshwater (roughly 100 billion cubic meters or about 81 million acre feet as measured in the American West) for $0.65 per cubic meter (making the exported water cheaper than desalinating ocean water). The freshwater would be exported in massive floating bags or membranes pulled by tugboats, which are less expensive than either tanker ships or building pipelines.
Putting aside the flaws in the report’s methodology (notably the estimates of available freshwater and uncertain future price of freshwater) and current laws prohibiting water exports in Quebec, the report has some policy value. It demonstrates that selling and exporting freshwater will be very a tempting way for cash-strapped but water-rich regions (such as the Great Lakes) to make a quick buck. I expect Canadian environmental groups (and perhaps some environmental groups in the U.S. that pay attention to our northern neighbor) will both attack this report and use it as more evidence of the threat of water exports. It’s easy enough to attack these proposals when they are theoretical or done for private profit. But what will happen when a state or provincial government proposes to sell and export freshwater to fund public schools, health care, and affordable housing?
Of course we shouldn’t be forced to make that choice. We also shouldn’t have the highest national poverty rates in our Great Lakes cities of Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo, where up to one-third of the population struggles living below the poverty line. Prosperous cities like Toronto and Chicago wouldn't sell Great Lakes water because they don’t need the money that bad. But impoverished cities may be more desperate. Protecting the Great Lakes from the threat of sale and export requires more than legal reform – we must also give our communities a better choice than selling the future to pay today’s bills.