SHAFAQNA- The Ontario government in Canada acted wisely this week when it imposed a two-year hold on the creation or expansion of water bottling plants. In that time, the province will review the rules that protect our precious groundwater supply.
The move was largely a response to concerns about the water being pumped out of the ground and bottled by corporate giant Nestlé at its Aberfoyle plant east of Guelph, as well as its recent purchase of the Middlebrook well in rapidly growing Elora.
The timeout for water bottlers is reasonable. At stake is a vital public interest. Amid claims that Ontario faces a groundwater crisis, the air must be cleared of the complaints and worries swirling around in it.
A comprehensive review should get to the heart of the matter, addressing the crucial environmental issues being raised while assuring Ontarians a vital natural resource is responsibly managed. But the guiding light in this review and any decisions that follow it should be scientific evidence. Moreover, the practices of all those who are taking water with a provincial permit — not just the water bottlers — need to go under the microscope.
Many of the fears being raised about the province’s groundwater seem overblown, based on environmental politics instead of environmental facts. The sizeable regulatory system Ontario already has in place to guard its groundwater has sounded no alarms. And despite a dry-spell this past July, we have seen no reports of significant groundwater shortages, far less a crisis.
However, we admit that global warming and the province’s growing population could be game-changers and perhaps, in the coming years, the rules for taking water do need tightening. So let the review begin of a major resource upon which so many lives depend. We look forward to a thorough assessment of the state of Ontario’s groundwater supply conducted by hydrogeologists, engineers and climate change experts.
If tougher regulations are required, the needs of the public — whether residents of a municipality or private landowners who depend on their own wells — should be priority number one.
Water taking permits should be granted to private businesses or interests only if the water can be taken in an environmentally sustainable way and will not negatively impact neighbouring communities or residents. If an extended drought puts the groundwater supply at risk, those permits should, for a time, be suspended. If Elora needs the well that Nestlé purchased, the local municipality should expropriate it, after compensating the company.
However, any new rules should not discriminate against water bottlers or treat them more restrictively than other commercial users of groundwater, such as breweries, distilleries and all those lovely golf courses with their idyllic, irrigated greens. The bottled water industry employs hundreds of people in Ontario, sells a healthy product and uses a minuscule proportion of the groundwater supply. It has been unfairly demonized in this debate.
In the Grand River watershed, which includes Elora as well as Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge, water bottlers take only 0.6 per cent of the water allocated through these provincial government permits, according to a 2014 water management plan for the area. Municipalities take 60 per cent while farms account for 10 per cent. Indeed, across Ontario, golf courses use far more of the groundwater supply than water bottlers.
If there is a problem, it is bigger than Nestlé and the many other water bottlers operating in this province. If changes must come, they should govern everyone who uses Ontario’s groundwater. And they should, above all and in keeping with these times, be evidence-based.