B.C. water woes prompt protest against water-bottling companies

·National Affairs Contributor
A demonstrator holds a sign during a march to protest against Nestle bottling water during the California drought, outside a Nestle Arrowhead water bottling plant in Los Angeles, May 20, 2015. Despite the current California drought, the total volume of bottled water consumed in the United States hit 11 billion gallons last year, up more than 7 percent from 2013. That translated into an average of 34 gallons per person, according to the International Bottled Water Association, citing data from the Beverage Marketing Corp. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
A demonstrator holds a sign during a march to protest against Nestle bottling water during the California drought, outside a Nestle Arrowhead water bottling plant in Los Angeles, May 20, 2015. Despite the current California drought, the total volume of bottled water consumed in the United States hit 11 billion gallons last year, up more than 7 percent from 2013. That translated into an average of 34 gallons per person, according to the International Bottled Water Association, citing data from the Beverage Marketing Corp. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon

Hundreds of wildfires are scorching British Columbia, while drought conditions just a few weeks into summer have forced water restrictions and the closure of fisheries in some areas of the province.

So many residents are asking why Nestle Canada and other water bottling companies are still allowed to bottle unknown millions of litres a day — for free until new, low fees go into effect next year.

Even once those fees are in place, water bottlers like Nestle will pay just $2.25 per million litres for B.C. water.

“It is by far the lowest in the country,” says Ian Stephen of the Water Wealth Project.

The group worked with SumofUs.org to launch an online petition demanding the province revisit its water pricing regime.

The petition is well past its goal of 150,000 signatures. Stephen says the date for delivering the petition to government has yet to be decided.

The B.C. government passed a new Water Sustainability Act last year. The new act regulates groundwater use for the first time, including aquifers and water sources below ground in addition to surface water from lakes and rivers.

Earlier this year, the province released the new water pricing regime. Starting next year, water users will pay a licencing fee and annual rentals fees that range from $0.02 per million litres to a top rate of $2.25 per million litres for industrial users, including water bottling companies.

For comparison, in Saskatchewan industrial water users pay up to $46.20 per million litres; in Quebec, up to $70 per million litres; and in Nova Scotia, as much as $140.

It takes 1.3 litres of water to produce one litre of bottled water. So $2.25 worth of water drawn from the aquifer used for tap water in Hope, B.C., produces roughly 769,230 one-litre bottles of water. At a conservative price of $1.20 each for a 1.5-litre bottle, they will retail for $615,384.

While Nestle takes the brunt of criticism, there are many companies bottling water in B.C., including Whistler Water, Re-Leaf, Mountain Spring Water Company, RippleFX Water and Premium Springs Water.

“We’re trying to point out to people that, yes, Nestle is doing their thing in Hope but there’s also these guys right here and there’s another one over in Harrison Mills and there’s Whistler Water. They’re all over the place,” Stephen says.

Nestle voluntarily reports the volume of water it uses but under the old water act, water bottling companies did not have to report and most have not. There are no limits to how much they can take.

According to a 2013 report by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Canadian exports of water totalled over $24 million in 2012, with 83 per cent (or just over $20 million) of that total coming from B.C.

The federal agency estimates 2.29 billion litres of bottled water are produced in Canada annually by 65 different bottlers, most of them in Ontario, Quebec and B.C.

Nestle spokesman John Challinor says the company supports groundwater regulation and fees.

“We share the belief that all B.C. users should pay for the water services they receive and we welcome this requirement by the B.C. government,” he says.

Nestle draws 265 million litres annually from the aquifer in the Kawkawa Lake sub-watershed near Hope, Challinor says, less than one per cent of what is available. As for drought, Challinor says underground aquifers are typically not affected by drought the way surface lakes and rivers are.

Stephen says there are many good aspects of B.C.’s new Water Sustainability Act but the fees are not one of them.

Environment Minister Mary Polak has repeatedly said that the province chose not to commodify water as a for-profit resource. The fees are to cover the cost of administration and water management, she has said.

Stephen dismisses her explanation saying, “Nobody wants the province to profit from water but we do want things like mapping aquifers and examining the state of glaciers in the province “There’s a lot we don’t know.”

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