NEW YORK (MainStreet) — While President Obama vetoed the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline with great fanfare, Canadian politicians and agencies have for decades more quietly blocked water pipeline and diversion schemes. Pressure on Canada could grow as the U.S. enters an election year with recent droughts in giant electoral powerhouses like Texas and California, and across the jobs-generating Sun Belt and bread basket Plains States.

Water desalination and reuse are probably more realistic -- politically -- for the U.S. than relying on water exports from Canada,” said Timothy Heinmiller, associate professor of public policy and environmental politics at Canada’s Brock University. “Water exports have been a political non-starter in Canada and even the most right-wing, business-friendly governments have not taken up the water export cause. On the few occasions when water exports have been contemplated, or permitted by governments, public outcry has forced them to backtrack.”

Water conservation is of course the first, best defense against scarcity. Drip irrigation, low-flow fixtures, and smart water meters are increasingly commonplace. But as Peter Beland, North America Editor at Global Water Intelligence observes, “There comes a breaking point for every community, and it is often brought on by sustained and significant drought.” Historically that’s been an impetus to pipelines, and some politicians carry that mindset forward despite expert advice that the wave of the future should roll out of a purification plant.

We live in a heroic age of water pipelines and diversions. Rome’s aqueduct builders would be awestruck by record-shattering projects that are planned or underway in Turkey, India, and China. Late Libyan dictator Col. Muammar Gaddafi plumbed the Sahara with the “Great Man-Made River,” the world’s largest underground water pipeline network, linking the subterranean Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System to farmland and the populous Mediterranean coast. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, already a million miles of water pipelines and aqueducts crisscross the U.S. and Canada, “enough to circle the Earth 40 times.” Typically these projects move water within nations, not between.

Only 3% of the planet’s water is fresh, but 20% of that precious resource is in The Great White North. That such wealth is contiguous with great need may be viewed with renewed urgency, thanks to a prediction by NASA, Cornell University and Columbia University that conditions in Western states will worsen and lengthen into epoch-shaping events.

Even in less desperate recent years, American leaders have rattled Canadians with talk of drawing down from their resources. In 2006, former U.S. Ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci called for Canada to treat water like its other exportable commodities. In 2007, Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico, suggested that the Great Lakes, shared with Canada and at low levels, might be siphoned off to parched Western states. During Senator John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential bid, he was widely quoted as saying before the Economic Club of Canada that “[w]ater exports will be the defining issue of the 21st century, but it must be done with the consent of the people." A spokesperson for McCain told MainStreet that this statement wasn’t part of McCain’s remarks but might have been said in response to a question afterward.

Canadian reluctance to export water was only entrenched by the North American Free Trade Agreement, which doesn’t compel Canada to export water but could make it difficult to turn off the tap once it’s voluntarily opened. The key distinction is between water as a resource, in its natural state, and as a good, once action has been taken to exploit it.

“NAFTA contains provisions to prevent the introduction of arbitrary export controls, once international trade of a good has commenced," Heinmiller said. "So, if Canada began exporting water to a NAFTA country, the Canadian government could only impose export controls in an emergency situation. And, even in an emergency situation, it could only impose controls that are proportional to its own domestic water consumption reductions.” He added that he’s unaware of any test cases for this provision.

The “blue gold” comparison with oil bandied about by some enthusiastic investors also gives Canadians the jitters: an export arrangement could engender dependency, transforming Canadian water into a U.S. national security concern and cause for intervention.

Canadians used to boast of their water wealth, but today they’re more cagey.

Environment Canada, the federal watchdog, carefully notes that less than half of the nation’s water is renewable. The rest is a one-time parting gift of the Ice Age lingering in lakes, underground aquifers and glaciers. More than half of Canada’s renewable water drains northward to the sea, away from population centers and the U.S. border. Environmental economists point out that even if redirecting those flows was affordable, the rich estuaries where rivers meet oceans are too valuable to radically alter.

Canada risks bleeding its water from a thousand cuts should legal protections slacken.

“The Great Lakes, however, could witness the multiplication of small diversions, the cumulative volume of which could, potentially, be the equivalent of a large transfer” internally or across borders, warns geographer Frédéric Lasserre of Quebec’s Laval University in Eau Canada: The Future of Canada’s Water (University of British Columbia Press, 2003).

Feeling the heat, Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. Gary Doer told Canada.com in 2014 that fresh water issues between the U.S. and Canada will soon make Keystone XL pipeline tensions “look silly” by comparison.

“I think five years from now we will be spending a lot of our time diplomatically and a lot of our work on dealing with water,” he told Canada.com, a unit of PostMedia Network Inc.

Or not. The future could be very Canadian in a different sense: congenial to the point of boring.

Water wars and breathtaking engineering mega-projects might capture the imaginations of Hollywood science fiction movie producers, but their faucets will more likely flow with water captured by Heinmiller’s prosaic desalination and reuse prescriptions, according to California water industry executives.

“Exotic ideas are not on the agenda," confirms Jack Hawks, executive director of the California Water Association, which represents investor-owned water companies serving six million people in that state. "Emphasis is the other way, to improve local, reliable sources of supply.” 

California has suffered four years of intense drought.

Nowhere are Canada or long-distance pipelines mentioned in the policy resolutions adopted by the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) in October, noted Erica Brown, director of sustainability and climate programs at AMWA. The association, which represents U.S.public water systems serving 130 million people, repeats the mantra of conservation, desalination, and reuse, urging federal investment in these approaches.

Some analysts are more strident. “I think the idea of a pipeline from Canada or Alaska to California is preposterous,” said Neil Berlant, a partner at Los Angeles-based brokerage and money management firm, Crowell, Weedon, & Co, a division of D.A.Davidson & Co. “These proposals to bring in water by barges and balloons and pipelines and towing icebergs are ridiculous. They have some feasibility, but they don’t compare economically today when the costs of making potable water through desalination have dropped so dramatically. We have a perfectly workable and practical solution in the form of desalination.”

“We don’t have a shortage of water," Berlant added. "The Earth has the same amount of water that it did a million years ago. What we have is a shortage of cheap water because we’ve tapped all the easy-to-tap sources.”

According to the EPA, only 0.3% of freshwater can be found on the planet’s surface.

“What’s left is more difficult to get to or requires more cleaning, but we are so much further ahead than three, five, or ten years ago,” Berlant said, adding that with photovoltaic and natural gas costs dropping, and energy efficiency gains, drinking water from our oceans could be “limitless.”

Modern desalination and wastewater reuse plants rely on reverse osmosis technologies that force water through membranes. Distillation has largely faded away, apart from at-home setups.

Announcements of breakthrough technologies by credible laboratories like Lockheed Martin and the University of Texas at Austin have raised hopes, but they haven’t yet changed planning.

“Generally speaking, the water treatment sector is very conservative in its uptake of disruptive technology," observes Beland of Global Water Intelligence. "The sector is conservative in general, but because of that conservatism is largely seen as a stable, albeit low-yield investment area.” 

Befitting a conservative sector, many publicly traded desalination plant builders and component developers are long established giants, among them Acciona, Dow, DuPont, Evoqua, GE, Pall Corp., Veolia Environment, and Consolidated Water. There are also water Exchange-Traded Funds.

Part of the risk that rewards conservatism in water projects is that there’s no universal commodity pricing for water. There is, however, a standard unit: a depth of one foot spread over an acre, or an “acre-foot.” Berlant described water pricing as “fairly convoluted” by regulatory tinkering, while California Department of Water Resources engineering geologist Tonianne Pezzetti said that the real issue was that construction and operating costs are too “locally specific” to generalize price projections. Take Gaddafi’s “eighth wonder of the world.” A 2011 Columbia University Water Center blog article cited unnamed analysts as estimating water from the Great Man-Made River as being “ten times cheaper than desalination,” but a 2003 University of London and Alfateh University (Tripoli, Libya) study concluded that it was four times more expensive than desalination.

That uncertainty hasn’t stopped companies from proposing a string of more than a dozen desalination plants for coastal California. None is more closely watched than Boston-based Poseidon Water’s $1 billion Carlsbad Desalination Project in San Diego County. That project will be the largest ocean desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere and is expected to provide 50 million gallons of potable water a day by 2016 for $1,849 to $2,064 per acre-foot in 2012 dollars, under a 30-year contract.

Additional system costs will bring the total water price to between $2,014 and $2,257 per acre-foot, or up to $7 more per month for a household of four’s monthly water bill.

Construction began after long delays caused by environmental lawsuits and public arguments over its feasibility, cost-effectiveness and financing of the public-private partnership. Carlsbad is seen as an industry bellwether.

California is also dissolving the taboo against water reuse -- drinking water that went from toilet to tap. This method underprices ocean desalination. California’s Orange County Water District treats sewer water, pumps it back into the natural environment, and then eventually takes it back into the drinking water treatment system.

The agency started mixing reused water into the drinking supply in 2008 and is expanding this supply source to 100 million gallons per day. Employing natural buffers after mechanical ones is called “indirect reuse.”

Disconcertingly, one of AMWA’s resolutions was that “[t]he federal government should fund much needed research to review the possible adverse health effects of indirect reuse and provide guidance on the treatment techniques needed to ensure human health and safety.”

But the “next step on the evolutionary chain is moving from indirect to direct potable reuse,” a purification system without a natural buffer, said Hawks. The fitness of that survival gambit will be tested far from Canadian glaciers by newly opened plants in Wichita Falls and Big Spring, two dusty Texas cities whose very names are broken promises of water.

—Written by Erik Baard for MainStreet

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.