B.C. the ‘Wild West’ when it comes to giving companies groundwater access, critics say

·National Affairs Contributor
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Beverage giant Nestlé is in critics' sights once again over its bottled-water operations.

Subsidiary Nestlé Waters Canada has been fighting with Ontario conservationists over rules governing water volumes for its bottled-water operation in the province.

Now its West Coast plant in Hope, B.C., has found itself in the crossfire over the fact it and other water bottlers pump millions of litres of publicly owned groundwater without paying for it.

The situation continues despite longstanding promises by the B.C. government to update the province's century-old Water Act, the Vancouver Province reports.

“The province does not license groundwater, charge a rental for groundwater withdrawals or track how much bottled water companies are taking from wells," an Environment Ministry spokesperson said in an email to the Province.

[ Related: Bottled-water giant Nestlé in showdown with Ontario conservation group over water use ]

The government had touted Water Act modernization under a policy called Living Water Smart.

"Ground water is vital for sustaining communities, industry, and agriculture," the government said in outlining the policy on its web site.

"The regulation of ground water should be viewed as a subset of improving the water allocation system. Consultation to date suggests a desire to have ground water management integrated with surface water management for implementation simplicity.

"Regulating ground water use poses a number of possibilities including water licences or permits, well drilling authorizations, as well as conditions such as volume limits, duration, and requiring monitoring and reporting of water use."

The document notes British Columbia "is the only jurisdiction in Canada that doesn’t regulate ground water use, even where surface water is heavily allocated; regulating extraction and use of ground water is a key to hydrologic sustainability.

"The Water Act modernization project provides an opportunity to better integrate surface and ground water planning, allocation, and decision making."

The policy outline said B.C. would look to recognized leaders in groundwater regulation, including Ontario, Nova Scotia, Alberta, Manitoba and U.S. states Washington and Idaho, when developing its regulatory framework.

But the document also states the government would have the new rules in place governing groundwater use and large-scale withdrawals, such as by bottling plants, by 2012.

The Province reported the government now plans to include groundwater regulation in its proposed Water Sustainability Act, which would be introduced in the legislature next year. Critics are skeptical, saying successive governments have promised to modernize water regulation for decades, with no follow-through.

“It’s really the Wild West out here in terms of groundwater," Linda Nowlan, conservation director from World Wildlife Fund Canada, told the Province.

"And it’s been going on for over 20 years, that the Ministry of Environment, the provincial government has been saying that they’re going to make these changes, and it just hasn’t gone through yet."

The Province said Nestlé draws about 265 million litres a year from a water aquifer that also supplies 6,000 Hope residents.

“We have water that’s so clean and so pure, it’s amazing," Hope resident Sharlene Harrison-Hinds said. "And then they take it and sell it back to us in plastic bottles."

It isn't the only one. Nestlé may be the largest free water user in the province, employing 75 people in the District of Hope, but there are more than a dozen water-bottling operations in British Columbia.

Bottled water is big business in Canada, numbering about 65 bottlers. The largest producers are in Ontario, Quebec and B.C.

Although it ranks fifth behind soft drinks, coffee, milk and tea in terms of the volume consumed by Canadians, the domestic bottled-water market totaled just under $5 billion in 2009, according to Agriculture Canada. Three quarters of the demand is supplied by domestic production.

[ Related: Underground Intelligence: Mapping Canada's Groundwater ]

Nestlé Waters corporate affairs director John Challinor told the Province its Hope operation exceeds the requirements of the proposed new rules. The company keeps records of water quality and its mapping of underground water resources exceeds what government scientists do.

“We do these annual reports ... We’re doing it voluntarily with [the local government]," he said. "If we are asked to provide it as a condition of a new permit, that’s easy to do, because we’re already doing it."

But the current regime allows the company to withhold that information if it chooses and it does not need a permit to extract groundwater.

“So you could drill a well on your property, and drill it right next to your neighbour’s well, and you could pump that well at 100 gallons a minute, 24 hours a day, seven days a week and waste all the water, pour it on the ground if you wanted to …" David Slade, who operates a well-drilling company of Vancouver Island, told the Province.

"As far as depleting the resource, or abusing the resource, there is no regulation. So it is the Wild, Wild West.”

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