Ontario is proposing to extend a moratorium on water-taking bottling permits for nine months.
A spokesman for Environment Minister Jeff Yurek says this would give the government more time to review the science and consult with the public, stakeholders and Indigenous communities.
The ministry has finished its review of the science, policies and programs used to manage how water is extracted in Ontario, and now wants to have the data reviewed by a third party.
"The people of Ontario want confidence that the quantity and quality of water resources are protected, now and into the future by good policy that is based on solid science and evidence," wrote Yurek's spokesperson Andrew Buttigieg in an emailed statement.
The proposed extension is a "good step in the right direction," according to Rob Case, chair of Wellington Water Watchers, which has called on the province to extend the moratorium. The group describes itself as a non-profit dedicated to water protection in Guelph and Wellington County.
"We would congratulate all of the thousands and thousands of Ontarians who are becoming more more engaged in this issue, and who wrote in and phoned in and let the ministry of environment, conservation and parks know where we stand on this particular industry," Case said.
The moratorium on new and expanded permits to take water for bottling was put in place by the former Liberal government in 2017 after bottled water giant Nestle purchased a well near Guelph that the township of Centre Wellington wanted for its future drinking water supply.
The Progressive Conservative government extended it last year, and with the new expiry date of Jan. 1, 2020 looming, the Tories are looking to push that back to Oct. 1, 2020.
Nestlé Waters Canada president Adam Graves said in an email that his company welcomes the opportunity provided by the moratorium to "demonstrate [its] commitment to the responsible stewardship of Ontario's fresh water resources."
"As the Government of Ontario takes this additional time to verify the extensive data and scientific evidence submitted already, we will work closely with our industry partners and ministry officials, regulators and stakeholders to ensure that all appropriate standards are not only met but surpassed," Graves said in the statement.
'Good news,' township says
Residents of Centre Wellington were "really happy" to hear the news of the proposed extension, said Mayor Kelly Linton.
"We've had about five meetings already with different ministers of environment and so this was something that we were asking for," Linton said.
Linton said the extension would give the township enough time to put in place recommendations from its water supply master plan.
He said the township needs to drill between two and three new wells in the coming years to meet the needs of its population.
"It takes a long time for a municipality to go through this process with the ministry of environment, conservation and parks," Linton said.
"So we're starting that process and having this additional time without any new water takings for commercial water bottling is a benefit to us."
Calls for permanent moratorium
Going forward, Case said he hopes the province will bring in a "more rigorous" process of environmental assessment for companies applying to take groundwater. Over time, Case said he thinks the province should phase out permits for water bottling altogether.
"I think it is time for us to take a pause and consider what types of industries we're talking about when we say that Ontario is open for business," Case said. "This is an industry that gets the private for-profit interests sort of into competition with municipal water needs."
In an release, the non-profit Council of Canadians said the province should make the moratorium permanent.
"Ontario needs to take bold action to protect precious community groundwater sources throughout our province, which are already under extreme stress from the climate emergency, population growth and over-extraction," wrote regional organizer Mark Calzavara, adding that bottled water waste also ends up in oceans and landfills.
Elizabeth Griswold, executive director of the Canadian Bottled Water Association, said the bottled water sector responsibly manages water resources from both municipal and groundwater sources.
The proposal to extend the moratorium is open on the Environmental Registry of Ontario. The process to submit comments is open until 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 18.
Water bottling companies have been allowed to take millions of litres per day.