The Council of Canadians and Wellington Water Watchers (WWW) – with legal representation from Ecojustice – are now parties to a case involving Nestlé’s water takings in Hillsburgh, Ontario. Last Thursday, the two groups won the right to challenge a proposed agreement between Nestlé and the Ministry of Environment (MoE), which would permit water withdrawals from a shared water source during low water conditions. The agreement stems from Nestlé’s appeal of an MoE ruling requiring them to reduce their water takings during times of drought.
Both Nestlé and the MoE strongly opposed the groups’ attempt to intervene but their arguments were rejected by the Environmental Review Tribunal (ERT). By gaining Party status through the ERT, the groups will ensure the local aquifer is protected. Last March, the two groups formally requested a review of Ontario’s Permit To Take Water process as it applies to licenses granted by the province to bottle water, urging Ontario to overhaul its ‘outdated and narrow approach' that is inconsistent with the Public Trust Doctrine (PTD). The PTD holds that certain natural resources, including groundwater, belong to all Canadians and cannot be privately owned or controlled. This is because of the resources’ inherent importance to each individual and society as a whole.
“We believe this case presents an exciting opportunity for the ERT to recognize that the Public Trust Doctrine provides a valid legal basis for upholding the Director’s decision to add drought-related conditions to Nestlé’s Permit To Take Water,” says Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians.
“The MoE should stand by the conditions it imposed on the permit renewal, even though we do not agree with this permit in general, the mandatory conservation measures are prudent and consistent with what is asked from private citizens. No one should profit from shortage. The lawyer for Nestlé opposed ‘adding a third leg to the stool,’ meaning party status for WWW and the Council of Canadians. Everyone knows what happens when you try and sit on a stool with only two legs. We are here to ensure its stability and proper foundation,” says Mike Nagy, Chair, Wellington Water Watchers.
“The MoE and Nestlé opposed our clients becoming Parties in the appeal. We believe that more public participation, not less, is the best way to ensure that the importance of our common water resources is not forgotten,” states Will Amos, lawyer for Ecojustice.
The groups are concerned that under the proposed agreement, Nestlé’s ability to take up to approximately 1.1 million litres of water per day from Hillsburgh for its bottling operations in Aberfoyle will not be subject to mandatory restrictions during droughts. The City of Guelph issued a red alert last summer requiring a 20% mandatory reduction in water use from Guelph residents because of drought conditions. Wellington County farmers, livestock producers and residents were seriously impacted when they experienced the worst drought in over a decade last summer. Guelph Eramosa Township, neighbouring township to The Town of Erin, was on Level II restrictions (yellow alert) well into November.
On February 19, the groups learned that Nestlé and the Ministry of the Environment struck a deal to allow Nestlé to pump water for its bottled water operation without restrictions during Level I or Level II droughts.