TORONTO – Ontario’s opposition parties want the public to have a say as the Liberal government overhauls the province’s water-taking permit program this fall.
The New Democrats said a public review of water takings must be part of a new provincial strategy to treat water as a public trust that puts drinking water, sanitation and agricultural uses ahead of commercial users.
“Often it’s the grassroots communities that are out ahead of the policy makers,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. “Ontario needs to have a complete look at the water situation and come up with a holistic strategy.”
Horwath met last week with Guelph residents who are fighting an application by multinational Nestle to renew its permit to take up to 3.6 million litres a day from its well in nearby Aberfoyle, and said they are concerned about their future drinking water supplies.
Simply charging bottling companies like Nestle more – it currently pays just $3.71 for every one million litres taken – won’t protect the water, she said.
“The highest bidder still gets the water, and we’re not taking on that stewardship role and ensuring that we have sustainable access to water that will support our growth plans over the next generations,” said Horwath.
Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner said public input will help ensure community drinking water and farming needs come ahead of water-bottling and aggregate mining operations.
“We need increased transparency and accountability in the permit to take water process,” Schreiner wrote in an open letter to Premier Kathleen Wynne. “Many high-risk uses of water receive little or no public scrutiny.”
Environment Minister Glen Murray’s office said he is open to public consultations, but offered nothing about how or when people could have input into the policy review.
The government has heard the community’s concerns about “how Ontario’s precious water resources are managed” so it made the permit taking review a priority, said Murray’s spokesman, David Mullock.
“A key element of this review is balancing the needs of all Ontarians, including consumers and farmers, with requests from businesses,” Mullock said in an email.
The Greens want the government to deny Nestle’s permit renewal in Aberfoyle and all permit taking applications for bottling purposes until the process is overhauled, something the NDP said the Liberals should consider.
“They should take that very, very seriously and have a hard look at whether the best thing to do is put a pause on where things sit now so we that can actually get a handle on where we stand,” said Horwath.
Progressive Conservative Ted Arnott, who represents neighbouring Wellington-Halton Hills – where Nestle purchased another well that Centre Wellington township had wanted for its drinking water – said there’s a lot of anxiety in the fast-growing area about an hours’ drive west of Toronto.
“I’m concerned too,” said Arnott. “I have an obligation on behalf of my constituents to voice concerns about ensuring that our ground water is protected over the long term, and that it isn’t depleted because of any large-volume user.”
Arnott wants any increased fees for the permits shared with the municipalities where the water is taken, but said he fears the Liberals will view it as an opportunity for a “cash grab.”
Schreiner said the government has had repeated warnings from its own environmental commissioner about the need to charge more for water because current fees cover just 1.2 per cent of the province’s water quality management costs.
Horwath said the families and city councillors she met in Guelph who oppose renewing Nestle’s permit were “insulted” when Treasury Board President Liz Sandals – who represents Guelph in the legislature – claimed that much of the opposition to the water taking was based on “misinformation.”
“It is quite astounding for this minister to have that approach to her constituents,” she said.
Wynne said this month that it’s time to treat bottled water companies differently from others with permits to take water, such as the construction and mining sectors, and ordered Murray to review the permitting process and the fees.
Nestle can keep taking water from its well in Aberfoyle while the government reviews the application to renew its permit, which expired in July.
The company, which has 300 employees at its bottling plant in Aberfoyle, has said it is prepared to pay more if rates are increased, but only if every firm with a water-taking permit – not just bottling companies – face higher fees.
There are over 6,000 permits to take water in Ontario, which last up to 10 years. Companies pay a permit fee of $750 for low- or medium-risk water takings, or $3,000 for those considered a high risk to cause an adverse environmental impact, plus the $3.71 per million litres.