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What is missing in Ontario’s new water management framework?

By Vi Bui and Mark Calzavara

Ontario has proposed making changes to the permit process that allows bottled water companies to extract groundwater. They have not revealed the specific details of the regulatory changes yet – and the devil will be in those details – rather, they have stated their intentions and given some background as to why they want to make changes. What is clear, is that the Ford government intends to continue to allow this frivolous and wasteful industry to exploit a stressed and vulnerable resource.    

Two-thirds of people in Ontario want the provincial government to phase out all single-use bottled water takings. Residents across Ontario, community groups, First Nations, and Council of Canadians chapters and supporters have pushed for an end to new water taking permits and a phase out of existing ones. That’s not what is being proposed. 

The new framework would end the moratorium on new bottled water taking permits and the government would resume the issuing of permits under slightly modified requirements. This moratorium has been in place since December 2016. 

The province is now proposing four potential changes: 

  1. Give host municipalities more input into new water bottling facilities in their community,  
  2. Increase public access to information on water taking data,  
  3. Establish provincial priorities of water use, and  
  4. Update the permitting approach to water-stressed areas. 

Proposed regulations will allow business as usual 

Simply put, the newly proposed requirements will not protect groundwater from the water bottling industry.  

The Ford gov says it wants to give host municipalities “a say” in the permitting process – but this isn’t the same as granting them the right to refuse.  Bottled water companies will have to seek approval from municipalities but only for new or expanded permits of more than 379,000 litres a day.  Currently, only 20 per cent of active permits are above this threshold. 

If a municipality refuses to approve a permit, they will have to do so under limited criteria that have yet to be determined. However, if they approve the proposed permit, the municipality will not be required to give any reasons why nor demonstrate that they have considered any potential negative impacts to their community from the proposed permit activity.  This downloads more responsibility and potential cost to the local government to conduct studies to justify their decision to reject permits. Even after these studies, the Ministry can simply ignore the stated opposition of a municipality.   

Since 2004, the province has designated certain high-water-use areas where they prohibit new or expanded permits to take water for specific commercial uses, including beverage manufacturing, fruit or vegetable canning and ready-mix concrete. Under the new framework, the province proposes to remove this clause on October 1, 2020. There are no specific guidelines or proposed regulations to replace this clause beyond some general guidance and approach.  

Third-party review raises some questions 

The province hired a third-party consulting company, BluMetric Environmental, to conduct three workshops with water managers in Ontario, assess water quantity in seven specific areas, and review ten water bottling permits and their impact on groundwater.  

The province claims that water takings for bottling have been sustainably managed in Ontario, based on the third-party report by BluMetric Environmental. We discovered that the report also states that municipal groundwater sources are either unsustainable or uncertain in more than half of the study regions in the future due to population growth, climate change and development.  We have been in touch with a geoscientific expert who has raised similar concerns. 

A note about the term “sustainable” – sustainability is widely defined as being able to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.  Characterizing something as “sustainable” while noting in the next sentence that it is not sustainable in the future, in this case, is disingenuous. 

Due to the highly localized nature of groundwater and large variation in population and climate impacts, the sustainability of groundwater in a few regions does not translate to sustainable groundwater across the province. Even within the study areas BluMetric deems sustainable, there are local areas with high levels of water stress that make groundwater extraction unsustainable in the future. It is deeply troubling that the Ministry chose to focus only on favourable findings when developing policy, opening the door to more water extractions while ignoring the unsustainable future of groundwater in the province.  

Recently, Nestlé announced its retreat from the Canadian bottled water market, a significant milestone that reflects the tremendous work that community groups, First Nations and Council of Canadians chapters and supporters have done to fight back this multi-national giant. However, our work is not done.  Ice River Springs, the company that purchased Nestlé’s operations in Canada, will now be permitted to extract over 10 million litres per day in Ontario alone.  Ontario needs to take bold action to protect groundwater sources throughout our province. 

It has been through fierce and persistent advocacy by the Council of Canadians chapter and supporters like you that the province was compelled to review its water management regulations. Now we need to keep up the pressure. Their proposed framework will allow more corporate water grabs and fails to address the larger issues of water commodification and water takings in the province.  

We have until Sunday, August 2, 2020 to tell the Ministry that we want an end to water taking for bottling now.  

Will you add your voice to demand an end to water takings in Ontario?