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E-M:/ News and critique: Canada passes diversion protections

Great Lakes United, Week of December 24, 2001


Acting on a promise made more than two years ago, the government of Canada has finally passed Bill C-6, an attempt to prevent bulk removal of water from the Great Lakes and other “boundary” waters between the United States and Canada.

The bill bans the removal of water from designated water basins (for example, the Great Lakes water basin) and gives the minister of foreign affairs the power to licence uses of water within the basin that would affect levels and flows on the U.S. side of the boundary. Unfortunately, both of these powers contain exemptions, which are as of yet unspecified.

The bill is in the form of amendments to the Boundary Waters Treaty Act, which fulfills Canada’s obligations under a 1909 treaty between the United States and Canada. That treaty commits the two countries to prevent actions that would alter the levels and flows of boundary waters on the other side of the border.

The new amendments are an improvement over the previous version of the Boundary Waters Treaty Act, which did not address bulk water removal, but they have a number of very serious flaws.

First, in theory the amendments effectively ban removals of water that would affect levels or flows of boundary waters. But the text repeatedly provides for unspecified exceptions to this ban. It is not clear why exceptions were built into the bill.

Second, the act leaves to be written into future regulation the definition of the basin from which harmful removals are forbidden.  The previous Liberal government suggested that it would define basins on a continental scale, such as the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic basins. A continental-scale definition could leave federal restrictions on export or diversion based on Bill C-6 open to potential challenge as a restriction on trade. One way to defend against such a challenge may be to prevent water removals based on their environmental harm, which is one of the few exceptions to free trade rules allowed in the major trade agreements. But a continental-scale definition of “basin,” which in theory would allow movement of water more than a thousand miles in some cases, could not credibly be defended as primarily an environmental protection measure. The Great Lakes basin, which may itself be too large for the purpose, may not even be defined as a basin under the new law, but merely included as part of the Atlantic Ocean basin.

Finally, the power to grant a licence is invested in the minister of foreign affairs, rather than the minister for the environment, further underlining the fact that the intent of the bill may not be primarily to protect the environment.

Nonetheless, the bill does offer the potential for limited protection for the region from harmful projects such as the 1998 proposal by an Ontario company to export water by tanker to Asia.

The core of the bill is in sections 11 and 13.

Section 11 says in part: “(1) Except in accordance with a licence, no person shall use, obstruct or divert boundary waters, either temporarily or permanently, in a manner that affects, or is likely to affect, in any way the natural level or flow of the boundary waters on the other side of the international boundary.”

Section 13 says in part: “(1) Despite section 11, no person shall use or divert boundary waters by removing water from the boundary waters and taking it outside the water basin in which the boundary waters are located. (2)  . . . removing water from boundary waters and taking it outside the water basin in which the boundary waters are located is deemed, given the cumulative effect of removals of boundary waters outside their water basins, to affect the natural level or flow of the boundary waters on the other side of the international boundary.”

Both sections also go on to allow “exceptions specified in the regulations,” which will be written by the government later. The exceptions could substantially undermine the effectiveness of the bill. The bill does not give guidelines for making exceptions.

The bill grandfathers all existing uses and diversions that might otherwise have been affected.

For the text of Bill C-6 as passed by Parliament, see:

For official comment on the bill as passed by Parliament, see:

If these links take up more than one line in your email program, cut and paste them into your browser. Remove any hyphens inserted by your email program except those already in the link (at “C-6”, “C-6_3”, or “C6-e”)


As 2001 comes to an end, the Great Lakes basin community awaits an expected January announcement by the governors and premiers of their workplan for implementing the water use reform promised in the state-provincial Annex 2001 document signed last summer.

The hope by all concerned is that such reform will solve the knotty trade agreement and other problems that may threaten to make it difficult to prevent future water export and diversion proposals.

In the workplan to be announced by the governors and premiers will be a proposal for involving the public both in the debates among the states and provinces about what to do and, more broadly, for comment on draft proposals decided on by the negotiators.

It has been six months since Annex 2001 was signed last June, more than enough to decide merely how to start work. Should the states and provinces delay their promised first step past January, it could signal a lack of willingness to do what is needed to protect the basin from the very serious threat of bulk water removals.

For an Acrobat .PDF version of Annex 2001 see:

For what basin environmental organizations would like to see the implementation of Annex 2001 achieve, see:


While the governors and premiers work on an action plan centered on water quantity and flows, Great Lakes United is hoping to facilitate an achievable action plan for the basin ecosystem as a whole. But we would like your help to do it. Please read this letter sent out to our organizational members two weeks ago and consider filling out the following 3-question survey. Thank you!
Dear Great Lakes activist:

With this letter Great Lakes United is inviting your participation in an exciting effort to develop a common agenda among Canadian, U.S. and tribal environmental groups to protect and restore the Great LakesSt. Lawrence River ecosystem. 

We have reviewed current government plans for Great Lakes restoration, including the draft Canada-Ontario Agreement and the U.S. Policy Committee’s “Plan for the New Millennium,” and have found them to be vague and noncommittal.
The time has come for us to take the initiative and spell out our collective goals, with specific timelines and strategies, for the improvements we want to see.
It is time to pull together the most developed activist initiatives from across the region, incorporate these efforts into one collective agenda, and use that agenda to pursue a solid campaign for healthy communities and a healthy Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River ecosystem.  As part of this effort we must push for the needed funding from the Canadian and United States federal, state and provincial governments.  There is already some support for a Great Lakes funding package in Washington.  A well-organized campaign may leverage that interest in Ottawa, Toronto and the state capitals as well.  But first we, as Great Lakes environmentalists, must know what we want and convey this agenda with one united voice.

What are the major issues? We know that cleaning up contaminated sites, addressing concerns about the sale and diversion of the region’s waters, preventing new introductions of aquatic nuisance species, controlling sprawl, and promoting the sustainable production and distribution of material goods and energy are all top issues for our region.  Great Lakes environmental groups from around the basin have been working on strategies aimed at addressing these and other issues for many years. 

What strategies are most advanced? By consolidating some of our most advanced strategies into a coordinated draft action agenda, we address most powerfully the steps that can be taken now.  We seek not so much to be comprehensive as opportunistic  to coordinate those initiatives on which we are ready to move now, bearing in mind there will be gaps to be addressed in the future.
We would like to celebrate and refine the development of a draft action agenda at our 20th Annual Meeting in June 2002 and there begin the campaign for funding and implementation.

But first we are asking you to help us take the next step. Your input is critical. Please take a moment to answer the questionnaire and e-mail your response to us at glu@glu.org or, on January 2 or after, fax to 716-886-0303.

Thank you for your time and consideration.  We look forward to hearing from you and working with you on this exciting project!

Great Lakes United Board of Directors


Please take a few moments out of your busy schedule to answer the following three questions and email (or fax on January 2 or after) back to Great Lakes United by Friday, January 11:

What are the priority issues that need to be addressed in a Great Lakes  St. Lawrence River action agenda?






What are the most developed grassroots initiatives addressing these issues? **(see below)






Which groups do you know to be deeply involved in each of the above initiatives?







** Initial criteria for defining a short list of initiatives include:
·  Will benefit the Great Lakes region as a whole.
·  Opportunities exist for federal, state or provincial funding.
·  One or more basin groups is already well enough advanced in work on the issue to credibly coordinate an action plan for the region.
·  Points of political impact are available. (Groups are already working with government agencies on the issue).