Activists are planning to step up protests over a deal that has allowed Nestlé Waters Canada to extract more than a billion litres of water on expired permits for over a year in rural Ontario.
The issue has already sparked heated protests, with activists vowing to make the phasing out of commercial water extraction a provincial election issue next spring.
Last month, protesters gathered at a controversial Nestlé well site in Centre Wellington, near Guelph. The Middlebrook well had been sought after by the local community for its own needs and the town placed an anonymous bid on the property, but the Swiss bottled water giant had a previous conditional offer on it and when learning of the local bid, exercised its right of first refusal and purchased the well.
This has caused concern that the Middlebrook well—the only new source of clean drinking water in the expanding municipality—could eventually be depleted for local consumption.
“We had 120 people march up a country road on a cold, windy day to the Nestlé plant, and we’re going to have more of that because people have had enough and more people are taking action than before—there’s a lot of societal angst over this,” said Mike Nagy, a board member of Wellington Water Watchers.
Although the Ontario government issued a pause on new permits with a two-year moratorium that ends in January 2019, it is allowing bottled water companies to take up to 7.6 million litres of groundwater per day on expired permits, giving them time to update renewal applications to reflect new rules.
Nestlé operates at two other sites in rural Ontario in what Nagy calls the “Nestlé Triangle.” One site is located in Erin, 80 kilometres southwest of Toronto, where the water bottler can pump 1.1 million litres per day under expired permits, and the other is in Aberfoyle, south of Guelph, where it is allowed 3.6 million litres a day.
The company has yet to take water from the Middlebrook well, and activists are hoping it will never have the chance to do so.
Public protest pushed the Ontario government to not only temporarily halt issuing new permits but also to raise the fee from a mere $3.71 per million litres of groundwater to almost $504 per million litres.
However, Nagy said the higher fees don’t go far enough and locals consider the price still far too low. He said Wellington Water Watchers and others are calling for a stop to commercial water extraction altogether, fearing Nestlé will go ahead on pumping the allowed 1.6 million litres a day at the Middlebrook site as soon as it gets the permits.
“We want action now and not for the province to wait for after the election when the two-year moratorium is up. We have a campaign underway with 40,000 to 50,000 postcards and emails sent to Premier Wynne’s office, which is asking for the phasing out of the bottled water industry in 10 years,” he said.
Nagy commended Wynne for verbal support in publicly questioning the environmental impact that consumption of bottled water has in Ontario, where Statistics Canada reported one out of five people drink primarily bottled water even with clean tap water readily available.
But he said the government isn’t acting fast enough considering how badly Centre Wellington needs the water in the short term. Towns in the Wellington area are expanding fast, and the population growth along with droughts that hit the area in recent years means the towns need the groundwater more than ever, Nagy said.
Water advocate Emma Lui with the Council of Canadians said there’s evidence of environmental damage left behind by Nestlé between 2011 and 2015, and the aquifers where Nestlé operates in Ontario and British Columbia fell by 1.5 metres, while at the same time the company increased water extraction by 33 percent.
But Nestlé denies those claims, saying in a statement that sustainability is very crucial in all the company’s operations and that it carefully monitors all data and cooperates with all levels of government and the community to ensure water remains intact for future generations. The company said that based on many years of extensive hydrogeological and environmental monitoring, there is no scientific evidence of declining groundwater levels or negative impacts to the local aquifer.
“We have a full-time hydrologist who manages over 130 monitoring points in Ontario,” Jennifer Kerr, corporate affairs director with Nestlé Waters Canada, said in an email.
“We have always shared our data with our stakeholders, including both provincial and municipal governments, conservation authorities, First Nations, and universities.”
The Township of Centre Wellington released a report in September of 2015 stating it currently has a healthy water supply.
Nagy, however, condemns Nestlé for falsely selling itself as a sustainable brand, noting that the monitoring of its wells is mandated by law.
Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change says it takes protecting the province’s water supply very seriously.
“Ontario has among the strongest water-taking protections in Canada. The Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change reviewed our water-taking rules and made significant changes to further protect our groundwater,” spokesman Gary Wheeler wrote in an email.
Wheeler said Nestlé and other water bottlers are operating within their legal rights to pump water under expired permits since under the Ontario Water Resources Act a permit can remain in force past its expiry date if an application to renew it is submitted. Nestlé said it originally applied for the renewal of both the Aberfoyle and Erin permits more than 90 days before their expiry, but added it is amending its applications in light of the new requirements.
In B.C., protest boiled over in 2015 when a drought hit the province and water restrictions were in place in many municipalities including in Hope, where Nestlé operates a well—but Nestlé was allowed to continue extracting water. The company pays just a $2.25 fee per million litres of water extracted in B.C.
Lui notes that Nestlé continues to pump water in Hope without any permits, as it is not required to submit an application until March 2019.
Jared Gnam is a freelance reporter based in Vancouver. He broke into the world of journalism covering the Stanley Cup Riot in 2011.