New Rules on Big Water Companies in Ontario Are ‘The Bare Minimum’

Ontario's plan for a two-year freeze on new water extraction permits has its critics.

Oct 18 2016, 6:09pm

Photo via Flickr user Kate Ter Haar

The Ontario government's two-year freeze on new water extraction permits and stricter rules on water-bottling companies are the "bare minimum" to protect groundwater supplies, according to water activists.

The province's move to slow groundwater extraction appears tailor-made to address the growing public outcry over the operations of water giant Nestlé in drought-stricken southwestern Ontario.

The company has existing permits to draw up to 3.6 million litres of water a day from its Aberfoyle well and 1.1 million litres a day at a well in nearby Erin. Both are within the same watershed as the City of Guelph, the largest city in the country completely reliant on groundwater.

Locals were pissed this summer when they found out Nestlé wasn't required under provincial law to draw less water from its nearby wells during a protracted drought (though it did so voluntarily) and paid the province just $3.71 per million litres taken.

The backlash grew after the company purchased a third wellhead in the nearby Township of Centre Wellington. The municipality made a counter bid to buy the well for its own use, but lost out.

Mike Nagy, the chair of Waterloo Water Watchers, a local water activist group, told VICE News the government's move "captures a lot of issues we have been asking for."

"[The province] seem to be acting, but to be straight, the pressure has to keep on so this proposal and this work turns into meaningful and lasting regulation."

Nagy said the Liberal government was "recognizing people are really ticked off about this water issue and they better do something about it."

The proposed moratorium on new permits and its details were posted October 17 to the province's Environmental Registry where the public can provide comment until December 1. The government says it is expected to come into effect before the end of the year.

The government will immediately introduce regulations shortening water-taking permits to five years from ten, and new mandatory reductions in the amount of water that can be extracted during a drought.

Beyond that, the province's environment ministry will study the impact of climate change and population growth on groundwater levels before introducing new regulations governing water bottlers in the province before the freeze is lifted.

News headlines and social media outrage have focused on the insignificant cost water bottlers pay to the government for the right to pump water from the ground. The province charges Nestle's operations in the Guelph region a maximum $17.44 per day fee to take up to 4.7 million litres of water.

Activists told VICE News the paltry fees have exposed how little is expected from the bottling companies.

Mark Calvazara of the Council for Canadians—a national environmental group and long-time critics of the water-bottling industry—said the existing permit regulations offer no meaningful oversight of the industry and its operations.

"It's a really crappy process where the company seeking the permit hires the engineers who sign off for the government to give its OK," Calvazara said. "And the government does no independent examination of that.

"You can imagine if you're an engineering company and you don't give the people paying your bill what they want, then you don't get much business going forward."

If the government continues to issue permits after the moratorium expires, Calvazara said, it should at least raise fees to cover proper oversight of the facilities. But he said there is little chance higher fees will slow the booming industry's growth.

"Even if you were to charge 3,000 times more, that would be about a penny a litre," Calvazara said. "That would make your litre bottle of water cost a penny more and that's not really going to deter people from using it."

Calvazara said the government deserves some credit for doing "the bare minimum required," but his organization would continue its call for Canadians to boycott all bottled water wherever possible and any Nestlé products until the practice of profiting from shared water resources was outlawed entirely.

A Nestlé Waters Canada spokesperson told VICE News it was "pleased with the direction the government has taken" and was keen to "participate in science-based conversations with all community stakeholders."

The company cited data showing all water bottlers in the Grand River watershed take only 0.6 percent of the water permitted to be taken by all users.

Calvazara and Nagy both insist water bottlers are being disingenuous when they cite the relatively small amounts they take compared to other users and industries.

"Bottled water gets exported out of the watershed it's taken from," Calvazara said. "Unlike a golf course—which can have a permit for taking water to water the grass—that water goes back into the watershed. Bottled water is gone forever."

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