OTTAWA — Canada has about 20 percent of the planet’s freshwater resources, sits astride the largest freshwater body of water in the world — the Great Lakes — and has so many power dams along its mighty rivers that when Canadians talk about electricity, they often just call it “hydro.”
Yet there are Canadians who are worried that the country’s ample freshwater supplies are at threat, a concern exemplified by an increasingly nasty dispute over the future of a large bottled-water facility in Ontario owned by Nestlé, the Swiss food conglomerate.
“We have a serious situation on our hands and no water to spare, absolutely none,” says Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians, a left-leaning nationalist group that has made water one of its major issues, along with health care and resistance to trade pacts. Barlow is crisscrossing the country promoting her latest book on threats to Canada’s water, called “Boiling Point.” It’s her fourth on the topic.
Barlow is among leaders of a campaign aimed at ultimately shutting down Nestlé Waters’ bottled-water facility at the community of Aberfoyle, in Ontario, about 65 miles west of Toronto. They claim the multinational is sucking out too much water from the aquifer at a time when the region is in the midst of a drought.
There’s a broader philosophical objection to the facility, as well.
“I want them shut down,” Barlow said in an interview. “I don’t think there is any reason for a bottled water industry here.”
Nestlé is a world leader when it comes to bottled water. It owns France’s Perrier, Italy’s San Pellegrino and multiple brands in the United States, including Poland Spring and Deer Park. It markets its Ontario output in Canada under the Nestlé Pure Life brand.
Critics say Nestlé is paying just pennies to the province of Ontario for the right to pump up to 3.6 million liters of water a day — at 3.71 Canadian dollars ($2.81) per million liters — and shouldn’t be granted an extension to its water-extraction permit.
Adding to Nestlé’s public-relations challenge is its decision to purchase an additional facility from a defunct water company about 40 minutes away, to feed production at its Aberfoyle plant despite a competing bid from a local municipality that was looking to secure its water supply. Nestlé says the township never showed interest in the plant when it initially made an offer to buy it in 2015 and turned up as an anonymous bidder at the last moment.
“Within 10 years, the township is going to need this water,” said Mike Nagy chair of Wellington Water Watchers, a local group that also has Nestlé in its sites and wants its operation phased out. “The reservoirs are all dry here. There’s this misperception that we have this infinite amount of water.”
Nestlé says its critics are way off-base and that the plant, which has 300 employees, has been operating sustainably for 15 years. “Quite frankly, we’re a very small water user within the Grand River watershed,” says Andreeanne Simard, a hydrologist who’s natural resources manager for the Nestlé facility. Bottled water accounts for 0.6 percent of all uses of the watershed, she says. Other big users include agriculture, municipalities and golf courses.
She says Nestlé is willing to pay whatever rates the government sets for water taking but notes that only 5 percent of commercial water users in Ontario pay anything for the water they use.
The issue has raised emotions throughout the region, particularly in neighboring Guelph, a growing city with a large university. The city council plans a public meeting next month at which opponents and defenders of the facility will get their say.
Reacting to the public outcry, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has promised a review of the regulation of water bottlers and the rates they pay for pumping. Calling water “our most precious resource,” she said that “water bottling is a different kind of industry and we need to treat it differently.”
The big fear for groups like the Council of Canadians is that water will end up being treated as a commodity and that huge volumes will head south to parched regions like California through bulk sales or water diversion projects. Successive Canadian governments have vowed never to allow such sales and there have been no deals done yet Barlow points to past attempts for sell bulk water from Lake Superior and Newfoundland, insisting that they only got blocked because of public pressure.
Nestlé’s Simard said that science drives her company’s decision-making. As for what drives the company’s foes, she responded. “I think it’s emotion. There’s a lot of passion for water out there. But we want the resource to be there forever as well.”
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