TORONTO – Premier Kathleen Wynne wants public input as the Liberal government overhauls the province’s water-taking permit program.
Ontario’s opposition parties had been calling on the government to include public consultations, and Wynne said Monday there is “absolutely a place” for that as part of the review.
“I think we have some immediate issues that we need to deal with because there are some permits that have been extended and there are some issues that we need to come to ground on quickly, but I think there does need to be a public consultation,” she said.
“I have said that I think that we need to look at water bottling and the change in our culture around bottled water and figure out how we protect our water. It is life giving. It is critical that in Ontario, where we have so much clean water, that we protect that, that we be good stewards of the land.”
Residents in Guelph are fighting an application by Nestle to renew its permit – that expired on July 31 – to take up to 3.6 million litres a day from its well in nearby Aberfoyle.
Currently Ontario charges companies just $3.71 for every million litres of water after they 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.
Wynne has said some of the conditions for water-taking permits are outdated and has spoken of the difference between taking water for agricultural or industrial use and taking it to sell bottled water.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath met last week with Guelph residents and said there should be public input on broader water issues, not just the fine details of permits.
“It seems to me that to have a full, clear strategy for Ontario – a comprehensive Ontario water strategy – there needs to be much more input than simply on the water-taking fees,” she said. “I would think that it would be wise for the government to set a new fee if they think that’s important as a small first step, but it has to be done in the context of a broader review.
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 if the province raises new fees or introduces a new tax on water bottling, municipalities where the wells are located should get a “substantial” portion.
He also noted that in Environment Minister Glen Murray’s mandate letter, Wynne told him he should report back in the fall on options to reform the regulatory process for water-taking permits for bottled water purposes. That doesn’t leave much time, Arnott said.
“I question very much whether or not there are going to be the kind of extensive public consultations that the premier committed to today unless they extend that,” he said.
Nestle, 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.
With files from Keith Leslie