Responding to Water Scarcity in Western Canada

17 Pages Posted: 11 Jan 2006

See all articles by David Percy

David Percy

University of Alberta - Faculty of Law


In any comparative survey of responses to water scarcity, a contribution from Canada is usually met with a sense of incredulity. Canada has a reputation for enjoying abundant freshwater supplies. Canada's experience in dealing with water scarcity is less well-known than its potential role of providing a solution to water shortages in arid parts of the United States through sometimes fantastic water diversion schemes. Although many plans have been suggested for transferring water from Canada to the United States, the two most notorious are the 1963 scheme by the North American Water and Power Alliance to dam major rivers in British Columbia and take water south through the Rocky Mountain trench, and the 1985 GRAND Canal project to divert water from James Bay in northern Quebec through the Great Lakes to the western United States. Despite the economic infeasibility of both schemes, they are frequently resurrected in popular writing about water. The impression of abundant Canadian water supplies suggested by such grandiose plans is fortified by the dubious distinction that Canadians are one of the most prolific consumers of water, per capita, in the world.

This image of plenty is, however, misleading. Canada suffers regional water shortages, even in areas where water supply has traditionally been abundant. In western Canada, the threat of water shortages is more well known and has inspired water legislation since the earliest days of European settlement. This Article focuses on the experience of the prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, which stretch northward from the 49th parallel to the 60th parallel and extend eastward from the Continental Divide to Hudson Bay and Lake of the Woods on the western boundary of Ontario.

The southern regions of the prairie provinces are known as Palliser's Triangle, in homage to the leader of a Royal Geographical Society expedition from 1857 to 1860, who maintained that their arid climate would constitute a barrier to settlement. The area experiences annual precipitation of between 12 and 16 inches and suffers from chronic water shortages. The historical concern about lack of water in this region is exacerbated by the fact that most supplies in the area are drawn from the major glacier-fed river systems that have their source in the Rocky Mountains. The Athabasca glacier, which feeds the Saskatchewan River system, for example, has been receding at an accelerated rate since 1960 and is now shrinking at a rate equivalent to about 30 percent every century. In recent times, long-standing concerns about present and future water supplies have been increased by the rapid growth in the population and economy of the area.

Keywords: water, Canada

Suggested Citation

Percy, David, Responding to Water Scarcity in Western Canada. Texas Law Review, Vol. 83, No. 7, pp. 2091-2107, June 2005, Available at SSRN:

David Percy (Contact Author)

University of Alberta - Faculty of Law ( email )

Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2H5

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