A Canadian company's proposal to export water by tanker to drought-stricken Santa Barbara is being challenged by an Indian tribe in British Columbia that claims the plan could damage the environment near its reservation.
Snowcap Waters Ltd. of British Columbia has proposed selling to Santa Barbara water taken from a creek about 10 miles from the reservation of the Klahoose Indian band. The Indians are concerned that their "traditional tribal lands will be exploited," said Arlene Hope, chief of the band.
The Santa Barbara City Council is expected to vote Tuesday on whether to approve the tanker water from Canada or desalination to supply the city with emergency water supplies.
As the drought in California intensifies, an increasing number of Canadian firms have applied for permits to export water. Seven companies in Western Canada have received permits and 19 others have applied, government officials said.
The increased interest in exporting water is creating a controversy in Canada over whether its rivers and streams should be marketable commodities, said Geraldine Irby, a board member of the Sierra Club of Western Canada. The Sierra Club has questioned British Columbia's policy of granting licenses to water-exporting companies without requiring environmental impact reports.
"You can't simply assume that removing all this water won't damage the ecosystem," Irby said. "An environmental impact report is the very least that should be required."
Snowcap has proposed supplying Santa Barbara with up to 15,000 acre-feet of water each year from Tzela Creek, which feeds into the saltwater Toba Inlet, about 75 miles northwest of Vancouver. One acre-foot is the equivalent of about 325,000 gallons.
"All we want to do is take some of this freshwater that just empties into the ocean anyway," said Fred Paley, president of Snowcap. "More than 20 other creeks and rivers empty into this inlet . . . so I see no need for any environmental report."
The Toba Inlet is a major salmon spawning area, and any change in the water flow could damage marine life, said Stan Guenther, a lawyer for the Klahoose Indians. Taking water from the area could change the inlet's temperature and its nutrient, oxygen and salt levels, he said. Also, the impact of frequent tanker traffic in a pristine inlet needs to be assessed, he said .
"Nobody's ever taken great quantities of the water that normally spills into the inlets," Guenther said. "Since it's unprecedented, nobody knows exactly what the effects will be."
Guenther has sent letters expressing the Indians' concerns to British Columbian officials. If water is exported without an environmental impact report, the band could file a lawsuit, he said.
While environmental impact reports are not required, government officials will order them "when they consider it necessary," said Jim Mattison, a manager for the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment. To obtain an export permit, the company would have to prove the water is "surplus to local requirements" and meet other criteria, he said.
Snowcap has a permit to use Tzela Creek for bottled water and to export 200 acre-feet a year by tanker. Paley said he was assured by government officials that the permit would be modified if the Santa Barbara proposal is approved.
A series of glacial lakes north of Vancouver cascade down sheer granite mountainsides into Tzela Creek. The company is prepared to pump the creek water into ocean-going tankers and, at Santa Barbara, pump the water through a pipeline to a city reservoir.
Although no decision has been made, it appears unlikely that the Santa Barbara City Council will vote to import water from Canada. A local committee appointed to review proposals for emergency water supplies has recommended desalination for Santa Barbara. Three Canadian companies had submitted proposals to the city, and Snowcap made the lowest bid.
No Canadian company has exported water by tanker. Snowcap is having discussions with other water agencies in Santa Barbara County and will soon make proposals to several California cities.
"This whole issue of sending water to California will be attracting more and more public interest," British Columbia's Mattison said. "Some argue that the water goes into the ocean anyway so why shouldn't we support an industry that provides jobs. Others say we shouldn't be selling off a natural resource. The more California needs water, the bigger the issue will be in Canada."