B.C. residents petition against province's water sales scheme

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British Columbia’s new water laws are making waves. A movement calling on the province to rethink what it costs to drink West Coast water is gaining momentum.

Nearly 83,000 people have signed an online petition pressuring the provincial government to increase the fees it will charge water bottling companies to tap B.C. water.

“Call on the government of British Columbia to stop allowing Nestlé and other corporate freeloaders from extracting Canada’s water for next to nothing,” says the petition at SumOfUs.org.

“Canada has some of the purest, cleanest and most delicious water in the world — and Nestlé doesn’t think anything of sucking it out of the ground for a pittance and selling it back in a plastic bottle. Nor does the government, apparently.”

The B.C. government passed the Water Sustainability Act last year, replacing the century-old Water Act.

The new law regulates groundwater use for the first time, bringing water from aquifers below ground on par with surface water from lakes and rivers.

Last month, the province released a water fee and rental price regime that will come into effect next year. Water users will pay a one-time application fee and annual rentals that ranges from $0.02 per thousand cubic metres to a top rate of $2.25 per thousand cubic metres for industrial users.

B.C.’s fees will remain the lowest in Canada. In Quebec, industrial users pay up to $70 per thousand cubic metres and in Nova Scotia, as much as $140.

Water bottlers like Nestlé will pay the top rate when the act goes into effect beginning next year.

One thousand cubic metres equals one million liters. It takes 1.3 to 1.5 litres of water to produce one litre of bottled water, according to Nestle. So $2.25 worth of water drawn from the aquifer used for tap water in Hope, B.C., produces roughly 444,000 1.5-litre bottles of water with a retail price in Canada around $1.20 each.

That comes to an approximate retail price tag of almost $533,000 for $2.25 worth of B.C. water.

Under the old Water Act, water bottling companies did not have to report the amount of water used to the province but it has been estimated that Nestlé draws 265 million litres of water from the aquifer in Hope every year.

Nestlé is not alone. There are many other bottled water companies operating in B.C., including Whistler Water, Mountain Spring Water Company, RippleFX and Premier Springs Water.

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

Environment Minister Mary Polak says the pricing scheme is meant to cover the $8 million annual cost of administering the act only. It is, by design, not a cash crop for the province, she says.

British Columbia “has never engaged in the selling of water as a commodity,” Polak said when she came under fire in the legislature for the fee regime.

Emma Lui, national water campaigner for the Council of Canadians, sort of agrees.

“It is a catch-22,” Lui told Yahoo Canada News.

But the solution is not a low fee. The council questions whether B.C. should allow bottling of water at all.

“Even though the B.C. government is charging for water now, it’s still not preventing some of these water-intensive industries like bottled water, like fracking operations… from abusing or polluting our water sources,” Lui said.

“I think [the Water Sustainability Act] is a step forward but I think there is still a lot to be done.”