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Environmental Impact of Inter-Basin Water Transfer Projects

In countries having large territories and highly scattered population with explicit temporal and spatial variations in climate and availability of water resources, inter-basin water transfer projects seem to be the ultimate solution to alleviate water scarcity and assure a balanced economic development among different regions. But when such projects are considered for implementation, they raise many problems and controversies that may challenge the planners, policy-makers and institutional procedures. This paper analyses the environmental and ecological impact of existing inter-basin water transfer projects in Canada and examines the water polic-making procedures, water laws as well as other decision-making criteria.

Environmental Impact of Inter-Basin Water Transfer Projects Some Evidence from Canada

In countries having large territories and highly scattered population with explicit temporal and spatial variations in climate and availability of water resources, inter-basin water transfer projects seem to be the ultimate solution to alleviate water scarcity and assure a balanced economic development among different regions. But when such projects are considered for implementation, they raise many problems and controversies that may challenge the planners, policy-makers and institutional procedures. This paper analyses the environmental and ecological impact of existing inter-basin water transfer projects in Canada and examines the water policy-making procedures, water laws as well as other decision-making criteria.


lobally, inter-basin water transfer projects are usually conceived with a broad range of useful objectives like irrigation, hydropower generation, industry, drinking water supply (both urban and rural), environmental improvements and navigation. The two major characteristics of inter-basin water transfer that can perhaps be considered universal are its complexity combined with a tendency to generate issues for pondering. These attributes are the results of the array of interactions of water with humans. Water is needed for sustenance of life in many ways starting from metabolic activities, food production, a means of transportation and an input into many economic activities; it also has spiritual and psychological values. The wide range of interactions with human activities make the definition of surplus water difficult and necessitate an agreement to decide when such inter-basin water transfers are desired. Thus, inter-basin water transfer projects and controversy proceed side by side. Though scientific studies and analysis play important roles in assessing the feasibility and effect of inter-basin water transfer, it cannot determine the final merit of individual proposals because of conflicts in fundamental values.

Inter-Basin Water Transfer Projects

In Canada, the inter-basin water transfer projects are developed mainly for hydroelectricity production. Canada has more than 600 dams and 60 large inter-basin water diversion projects. Some of the major inter-basin water transfer projects are given in the table. An estimated amount of 95 per cent of water transferred, however, is for hydropower generation. This transfer of water caused major changes to the hydrologic balance in terms of interactions between water quantity and quality. The knowledge gained from the study of these interactions between water quality and quantity provides a foundation for predicting impacts on various aspects that can be used to better understand the future inter-basin water transfer projects. This makes Canada, the world leader in water diversion [Day and Quinn 1992].

Constitutional Provisions and Institutional Arrangements

The inter-basin water transfer projects undertaken in Canada are provincial and the role of federal government is limited to formulating a policy for inter-basin water transfer. The federal government advocates exercising caution in considering the need for major inter-basin transfers and endorses other less disruptive alternatives such as demand management and water conservation to satisfy societal needs without sacrificing water-related values to irreversible actions. The federal government provides guidelines and criteria for assessing the inter-basin transfers within Canada in cooperation with the provinces/territories; takes all possible measures within the limits of its constitutional authority to prohibit the export of Canadian water by inter-basin diversions; strengthen federal legislation to the extent necessary to fully implement this policy; and develop with concerned provincial governments a mutually acceptable referral system to ensure that provincial licensing of small-scale transfers of water (local arrangements between communities, or containerised transfers) between jurisdictions take into account federal interests respecting navigation, fisheries, environmental protection, Indian treaties and trade considerations [Federal Water Policy 1987].

The federal government policy recognises a primary need for increasing public awareness with respect to water and encourages the media, education authorities and non-governmental organisations to provide public inputs for water decisions that have broad social, economic or environmental implications. A well-informed public and clearly defined channels for public participation provide the best assurance that water management decisions will take into account the full spectrum of public values.

In order to promote public awareness and true and valid participation in decision-making of inter-basin water transfer

Economic and Political Weekly April 29, 2006 programmes and initiatives to improve and protect Canada’s water resources, the federal government ensures that the public is consulted and that their views are considered in all major federal water management decisions. Also, it encourages the efforts of provinces and non-governmental organisations in public information and awareness; and ensures public access to information on the extent and health of water resources through appropriate means, including a state of the environment reporting system. The timing of public involvement is also critical in that if undertaken at the appropriate time in the planning process, it can prevent polarisation of views and create an environment of mutual respect and form the basis of negotiation. Public involvement should extend to the post-development phases of a project so that problems do not arise in the management of the project [Fitzgibbon 1987]. Presently in Canada, there is a complex array of federal, provincial, local agencies and institutions which have roles in management of water including inter-basin water transfer, through a wide range of legislative and regulatory tools. The basic constitutional framework for water management in Canada is characterised by a shared, but by no means precise, division of responsibility between the federal and provincial level of governments [Saunders 1987]. The federal government is taking a relatively restraining role with respect to water management and defers largely to the provinces unless there is a clear federal interest [Saunders 2000]. The primary aim of water management of federal government has been focused on its constitution responsibility for fisheries, navigation, international relations and water quality, generally toxic substances. The intergovernmental agreements have generally served the Canadian federation well, which clarifies the scope of federal and provincial powers in sharing inter-jurisdictional waters as in the case of the Apportionment Agreement for Prairie rivers the Prairie Provinces Water Board, the Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Water Master Agreement and Mackenzie River Basin Board which administer these agreements. These type of agreements effectively removed from the political arena some legal questions concerning the rights of the downstream province and the responsibility of releasing an agreed quantity of water by the upstream province. There are a number of important federal-provincial agreements across Canada dealing with water resources including inter-basin transfers. Some times this also touches international obligations like Columbia River, Skagit River, Great Lake, etc. The Canada Water Act of 1970 emphasises federal-provincial cooperation and includes provisions for some unilateral federal action on a transboundary issue. Some of the federal laws which provide a platform for cooperation and interdependence of water management are Constitution Act of 1982, International Rivers Improvement Act of 1985, Fishing Act 1985, Navigable Water Protection Act of 1985, Indian Act of 1985 for lands reserved for Indian and Aboriginal People, Canadian Environmental Assessment Act of 1992, International Boundary Water Treaty Act of 1999 and International Joint Commissions, along with provincial acts in different names like Water Protection Act, Water Resources Acts, Water Preservation Act, Environmental Quality Acts of different provinces along with river basin boards and regional water boards.

Environmental Implications

Inter-basin diversion projects are found in almost all provinces of Canada and the total diversion at present is more than 4,500 m3/sec. The findings that are apparent from a review of Canadian inter-basin water transfer projects unveil that most diversions utilise shortcuts and natural drainage channels to advantage in reordering the dense and disorganised drainage of a heavily glaciated landscape and are scattered widely across all of Canada. Most of them are remotely situated away from more populated regions. Canadian dams store water during the peak flow periods

Table: Major Inter-Basin Water Diversions in Canada
Jurisdiction Project Contributing Basin(s) Receiving Basin Average Annual Diversion(m3/s) Uses Operational Date Owner
British Columbia Kemano Nechako (Fraser) Kemano 115 Hydro 1952 Alcan
British Columbia Bridge Sector Lake 92 Hydro (1934) 1959 B C Hydro
British Columbia Cheakamus Squamish 37 Hydro 1957 B C Hydro
British Columbia Coquitlam Lake Buntzen Lake 28 Hydro (1902) 1912 B C Hydro
Saskatchewan Tazin Lake Charlot (L Athabasca) 25 Hydro 1958 Eldor Nuclear
Manitoba Churchill Churchill (southern Rat-Burntwood 775 Hydro 1976 Manitoba
Diversion Indian Lake) (Nelson) Hydro
Ontario Lake St Joseph Root 86 Hydro 1957 Ontario Hydro
(Albany) (Winnipeg)
Ontario Ogoki Lake Nipigon 113 Hydro 1943 Ontario Hydro
(Albany) (Superior)
Ontario Long Lake (Albany) Lake Superior 42 Hydro/Log 1939 Ontario Hydro
Ontario Little Abitibi Abitibi (Moose) 40 Hydro 1963 Ontario Hydro
Welland Lake Erie Lake Ontario 250 Hydro/ (1829) Government of
Canal Navig 1951 Canada
Quebec James Bay Eastmain-Opinaca La Grande 845 Hydro 1980 J B Energy
Quebec James Bay Fregate La Grande 31 Hydro 1982 J B Energy
Quebec James Bay Caniapiscau La Grande 790 Hydro 1983 J B Energy
Newfoundland Churchill Falls Julian_Unknown Churchill 196 Hydro 1971 Nfld and Lab Hydro
Newfoundland Churchill Falls Naskaupi Churchil 200 Hydro 1971 Nfld and Lab Hydro
Newfoundland Churchill Falls Kanairktok Churchil 130 Hydro 1971 Nfld and Lab Hydro
Newfoundland Bay D’Espoir Victoria, White Bear Northwest Book 185 Hydro 1969 Nfld and Lab
Greay and Salmon (Bay d’Espoir) Hydro
Source: Day and Quinn (1992).
1704 Economic and Political Weekly April 29, 2006

and release water to generate power during the low-flow periods. Such changes to water quantity also modify various parameters of climate and water quality within the reservoir and also downstream. The effect decreases with distance from the impoundment. The studies of Duffy (1987), Eley et al (1987), Laycock (1987), Fitzgibbon (1987), Day and Quinn (1992), Smith and Kells (1993) Rosenberg et al (1995,1997), INHS (1996), Stolte et al (1998), Prows et al in Environment Canada (2001), Quinn and Edstrom (2000), Quinn et al in Environment Canada (2004), throw ample light in this aspect. Major examples include: thermal stratification, earthquakes induced in nearby areas due to crustal stresses caused during and after filling of large artificial reservoirs, greenhouse gas emission within the reservoir and modification of downstream water temperatures; eutrophication; promotion of anoxic conditions in hypolimnetic water and related changes in metal concentrations in outflow. Increased concentration of mercury in fish mass in the reservoir as well as in downstream to certain distance making them unsuitable for human consumption also cause a mercury level increase in fish-eating birds (e g, Ogoki, Churchill and La Grande diversion areas). The most dramatic shifts result from mixing of water from disparate hydro-ecological systems (e g, across major hydrologic divides or from freshwater to estuarine environments), resulting in changes in chemistry, temperature and sediment. In addition, the transfer of fish, parasites, and pathogens can accompany such mixing. Forests, agricultural lands and wildlife habitat may be lost in perpetuity and existing fishery habitats destroyed. Case history of receiving rivers like Elk, Kemano, Cheslata and Bruntwood rivers indicate sediment retention, associated changes in total dissolved solids (TDS), turbidity and nutrients in the reservoir and discharged water; increased erosion/deposition of downstream sediments and associated contaminants. The case study of depleted rivers like Nechako, Peace and Churchill show severe fishery problems related to excessive summer water temperature due to reduced flow, slow channel degradation, accumulation of riverbed material, vegetation encroachment and clogging of secondary drains [Kellerhals1987].

Though most of the inter-basin water transfer projects are situated in less populated regions of Canada, still they have affected aboriginal or first national peoples of Canada. Most of the inter-basin water transfer projects in Canada were initiated before the mid-1970s. The approach of resources management by Canadian government until then was based on institutional secrecy. The review of five projects, namely, Long Lake, Ogoki, Nechako, Churchill and La Grande I [Day and Quinn 1992] reveals that secrecy was maintained while undertaking the planning of the projects. In none of such projects was there an opportunity for the interested public to voice an opinion nor were there quasijudicial institutions available to consider systematically the project assumptions, risks, biophysical impacts, economics and question of equity. In these projects the affected communities were not informed of the changes of the water regime which will affect the basic nature of development, possible environmental impact and the time frame for such changes. The latest inter-basin water transfer projects are La Grande (James Bay) Programme, Churchill-Nelson, Churchill falls which are no different from the old ones.

The case study of Churchill-Nelson diversion [ibid 1992] reveals that the project was completed in 1977. The Manitoba Hydro was licensed to undertake the diversion in 1972. The Churchill River basin (2,50,000 km2) covers three provinces, i e, the northern half of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The project with average diversion of 775 m3/sec of water from Churchill river at Southern Indian Lake (SIL) to Nelson river comprises 300 km of a diversion channel consisting of Rat (35 times the normal flow), Burntwood (seven times the normal flow) and finally to Nelson river. There are other projects upstream of the confluence of Bruntwood and Nelson, which are not analysed in this study. Large changes were induced in the water regimes of the Churchill and Nelson rivers due to this diversion. The observed effects are heavy shoreline erosion from the created new shore line of the Southern Indian Lake from where the water is diverted by raising the existing lake by impounding the lake height to three metres thereby increasing the inundated area and shoreline and consequent increase in mercury concentration in commercial fish and a fall in fish catch soon after inundation. Enormous impacts have been observed in terms of geomorphological and fishery in created reservoirs, dewatered rivers, diversion channels and water-receiving bodies. Wildlife is affected due to changed water levels and waterflows are affected in reduced flow of Churchill where the ducks and geese found reduced area for breeding. The socio-economic changes observed are social impacts like displacement of tribes and no consultation with local people and a secretive approach followed by Manitoba Hydro. In this project, the Manitoba Hydro initially took the limited responsibility of repair and replacement of facilities that were directly affected by the diversion. Compensation for effects on fishing, trapping and transportation was the responsibility of the provincial government. Later as the province did not assume this responsibility, the Manitoba Hydro was progressively forced to make ad hoc settlements with no proper planning for the problem. Power planning totally dominated resources’ decision-making in the diversion area. The long-term plans were not formulated for use of other resources and the consideration of project effects on these aspects of the resource were all conservative.

However, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (1975) incorporated a number of opportunities for native communities to participate in and benefit from, the hydroelectricrelated development. Even then there is widespread opposition to James Bay II dams and diversions in the great Whale, Nottaway and Rupert rivers. Treating the communities unjustly could delay the construction process and drag the government to costly disputes leading to a situation of mistrust. The study also advocates special attention to the native communities to comprehend the effects of diversion on the pace and direction of social change for them. The case study of the Nechaco-Kemano interbasin transfer project by Alcan Aluminium Company for hydroelectric production to support the smelting industry reveals that there were many trade-offs apart from power generation like flood reduction in the lower Fraser basin, submerging a circular chain of lakes popular with canoeists in Tweedsmuir Park, a deposit of huge volume of sediment in the Nechako, inundating homes and graveyards of the local Indian community forcing them to settle in a destabilising lifestyle in an unfamiliar way, etc. Also the flows to Kemano rivers across the drainage divide may have contributed positively to fish resources in that river temporarily and also for some other species and growth of the regional economy in the nearby city of Kitimat. There is also allegation of fluoride emissions which have caused decimation of the forest,

Economic and Political Weekly April 29, 2006 damaging the aquatic habitat and local workers’ health. Though the project is in operation for more than half century, the absence of benchmark data on all affected rivers has bewildered efforts to understand and reaction remedy induced changes which warrant careful surveys of both hydrology and other biophysical ecosystem.

The benefits and losses narrated above which can also be seen from the studies of the Long Lake and Ogoki Diversions, Churchill Diversions, La Grande (James Bay) Programme [Day and Quinn 1992]. Concern for protecting the commercial fishery in Lake Winnipeg from alien invasive species like gizzard shad and rainbow smelt is the main reason Canada and Manitoba insist that the Garrison Diversion in north Dakota in the US and more recent variations of that project do not divert water from the Missouri into the north flowing Red River. The issue of invasive species is most threatening in cases of overcoming natural barriers that have existed for thousand years, such as continental drainage basin divides (for example, the Garrison Diversion) or ocean separating continents. Nearly 160 alien species that have found their way into the Great Lakes, which now account for almost three quarters of the total invasive species are from Eurasian sources. This has occurred mainly via ship ballast water and cost water intake structures and native species billions of dollar [Schindler 2001].

A number of inter-basin water transfer projects either have been suspended or dropped because of the environmental point of view. Seagel (1987) reported the suspension of the McGregor Diversion project in British Columbia, Canada in 1978, primarily due to the concern over the transfer of fish parasites from the Pacific to the Arctic drainage. The case of Kootenay was also suspended on environmental grounds. Most recently, Canada has introduced a legislation to protect the Great Lakes from bulk water removal.

The Canadian Heritage River System is a modest approach in the direction of protecting a representative sample of riverine corridor from further disturbance. Most of the provinces in Canada have joined the programme. This programme for French river in Ontario will be a constraint in the potential inter-basin transfer route of Grand Canal from James Bay to Great Lakes [Day and Quinn 1992].

The possible threats that are apprehended are adverse environmental impacts, climatic change and water exports. In response to this turn of events and a continuing proposal to export water, the government of Canada in 1999 announced a strategy based on environmental rather than trade grounds. The basins or watersheds would become the geographical basis for preventing bulk water removals and proposed all provincial governments in Canada to legislate prohibition of bulk water removals from watersheds within the jurisdiction. Protecting water from its ecological integrity and use at source, within natural rather than political boundaries, was initiated as a defence against bulk water removal whether for use in Canada and elsewhere, thus avoiding the discrimination that could bring international trade challenges. Despite reservations by some environmentalists and other interests about this strategy [Gleick et al 2002], the federal and provincial governments now have laws, regulations and policy in place to prohibit bulk removal of freshwater and they typically apply to watershed areas within their jurisdiction. Existing interbasin transfers, however, are considered to be “grandfathered” and not subject to reversal, e g, British Columbia’s Water Protection Act in 1995 prohibits issuing a new licence for bulk water removal and prohibits new projects to divert water between major watersheds. However, amendments to the federal International Boundary Waters Treaty Act, that came into effect in December 2002 primarily to protect Canada’s boundary waters from out of basin removal, provide an exception to short-term humanitarian needs.

Key Research Issues

In the absence of benchmark data, hardly any systematic evaluation of consequences on all types of resources and resource users in an area affected by water transfer is available at present. Further at the project appraisal stage, the potential biophysical change and costs of adaptation, mitigation and compensation are not adequately considered and they are left to be resolved after the projects are commissioned. The issues of sustainability of interacting environmental components and human populations dependent on them have invariably been ignored. These areas require serious attention in taking up projects in future.

The inter-basin water transfer projects pose an ecological damage, threat and risk of pests, diseases and genetic loss of flora and fauna. These need to be addressed. Presently, Canadian scientists are bent on conducting research on improving their climate-forecast scenarios for the magnitudes and variation in precipitation, an advanced technique for water balances in altered landscapes and sediment processes, an enhanced ability to downscale global models for use in hydrological and ecological models. The scientists are studying the interactions between hydrological process and bio-geochemical responses for better understanding, particularly with respect to interaction with acid deposition and reduction process, dissolved organic carbon cycling, UV penetration, contaminant (mercury) transport, introduction of non-native biota, bio-accumulation and nutrient cycling. Further research is being conducted to know the effect of altered water quantity/quality on the ecosystem structure and function; and the interaction between changing hydrologic regimes and aquatic habitat quality. The Canadian scientists are considering the establishment of instrumented basins in potential regions and Canadian Hydro-Ecology Research Network to coordinate and facilitate multidisciplinary research for assessing the effect of inter-basin water transfer project and climatic variation on water quality.


Canada has a long history of undertaking inter-basin water transfer projects mostly for hydropower generation. The benefits of some of such projects are claimed to be real, substantial and wide ranging with a long-term biological and socio-economic cost. But many studies have recorded the adverse environmental impacts of such projects such as thermal stratification, earthquakes induced in nearby areas due to crustal stresses caused during and after filling of large artificial reservoirs, greenhouse gas emissions within the reservoirs and modification of downstream water temperatures; eutrophication; promotion of anoxic conditions in hypolimnetic water and related changes in metal concentrations in outflow, increased concentration of mercury in fish mass, increased erosion/deposition of downstream sediments and associated contaminants, intermixing of alien invasive aquatic species, Further in some projects many aboriginals or

Economic and Political Weekly April 29, 2006

first natives of Canada have been displaced from their native places and they resent the construction of such projects. Therefore, it is stressed that public views should be taken into account while deciding on investment in inter-basin water transfer projects, so that proactive measures can be taken to minimise the adverse environmental and socio-economic impacts. As a matter of fact, Canada is currently adopting a very cautious approach in bulk transfer of water. Recently many inter-basin water transfer projects have either been suspended or dropped for the purpose of long-term conservation of water based on the natural boundary of water in the basin of origin.

On the whole, this study, highlighting the environmental impact of inter-basin water transfer projects in Canada will greatly help the developed and developing countries including India who are in the process of implementing such capitalintensive mega projects for adopting appropriate proactive measures.



[This manuscript is prepared as a part of the Canadian Studies Faculty Research Fellowship awarded for the year 2004-05 by the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute with funding from the department of foreign affairs and international trade, government of Canada. Thanks are due to Sumeet Gulati, assistant professor, Faculty of Agricultural Sciences, University of British Columbia, for facilitating the research study in Canada, Bitanjaya Das, faculty member, WALMI, Orissa and an anonymous referee of EPW for constructive comments on earlier drafts.]


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