When president-elect Donald Trump opens-up the North American Free Trade Agreement next year I foresee water to be high on his agenda. The prolonged drought comprising roughly half of the US threatens its agricultural communities and cannot be ignored. What few realize is that Canadians have been importing water from the US for decades. It’s called fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, beverages, meat and eggs.
In 2015, Canada imported over $350 million USD each of grapes and wine, wholesale. In 2012, table grape imports were roughly 420,000 tonnes according to the Produce Manufacturers Association. Of course, the amount of water used was more than what we consumed via the bottle and the grape. As researcher Larry Williams of the University of California shows, the lovely Thompson seedless grape needs over 10 US Gal per grape producing vine per day during a typical growing season. Add to this the fact that in 2012 Canadians imported roughly 46% of all fruits and vegetables produced in the US, and anywhere from 50-70 million pounds of meat per month and we’re absolute water hogs.
Where does mega grape producer Sun World of Bakersfield California get its water? Not from Canada. This May 2016 photo shows the mighty Friant Kern Canal intersecting with an empty Kern River just north of Sun World central. The canal conveys all of the water from the San Joaquin River 245 km away. The average amount diverted to the area is 1.296 km3, with a “low of 58,000 acre feet (0.072 km3) in 2015.” Let me reframe that—in 2015, ALL of the water available in and taken from the San Joaquin River was a mere 5% of the average amount, and yet was equal to a typical Ontario township knee deep in water. Have we seen this reflected in grape prices? The numbers suggest we have not.
Which brings me to the predicament of our American neighbours. The Kern County food bank has seen a tripling of demand in recent years, distributing 13.5 million pounds of food in 2015. By comparison, food banks in Ottawa, Canada distributed 5.1 million pounds despite having a larger population. How ironic is it that the county that produces so much of our food suffers food insecurity itself?
The environmental, social, and economic issues associated with large water transfers are enormous, but there is no absolute right or wrong answer. Canadians are not responsible for all the water used or wasted in the US, but we account for a fair share. Canada has a vested interest in helping the US combat the effects of climate change. It is best that our negotiators remember this when Trump’s folks come calling, as they inevitably will.