TORONTO — Ontario’s environmental commissioner is urging the Liberal government to get better information about the province’s groundwater as it reviews the permits for bottled water companies.
Premier Kathleen Wynne recently imposed a two-year moratorium on any new or expanded bottled water operations in the province while the government reviews the rules and comes up with a new pricing scheme.
Wynne wants bottled water companies treated differently than the many other sectors with water-taking permits, including mining and construction.
But environmental commissioner Dianne Saxe said the government doesn’t have enough data to know what’s happening with ground water in Ontario.
“We’re making decisions with our eyes closed,” she said. “We don’t have enough information yet we’re allowing millions of litres to be taken every day out of the ground.”
The environmental watchdog warned that climate change will increase the amount of stress placed on water with more frequent and longer droughts, but said the province still allows millions of litres to be taken every day out of the ground.
Environment Minister Glen Murray said the current review will focus only on bottled water companies that draw from wells, but he plans to expand it next year to include others with water taking permits, including golf courses.
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“We just passed the Great Lakes Protection Act and we’re doing groundwater, then we’re going to deal with the other water issues after that,” Murray said Thursday. “We have some very significant issues in water-stressed areas with aquifers and groundwater, and with people who take the water out and don’t return it.”
The issue of getting good data on the groundwater, and other environmental concerns, is “challenging” for all governments right now, added Murray.
“Climate change is creating such rapidly changing situations with water quality, air and forests that the amount of data you need to manage these things is enormous,” he said.
Saxe called the two-year moratorium on new bottled water operations using wells “an excellent idea,” but said her predecessor had been raising problems with the province’s water-taking permit program for years.
“It gives the government time to figure out what its rules are going to be, but we still have this situation where the problems my office reported on remain,” she said. “We give away 100,000 litres of water for 37 cents for those very few people for whom we charge anything. Most water users in Ontario pay nothing.”
Ontario charges companies just $3.71 for every one million litres, on top of 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. About 30 per cent are in the highest risk category.
Municipalities, mines, construction companies and golf courses – in addition to the water-bottling companies – are allowed to take a total of 1.4 trillion litres out of Ontario’s surface and ground water supplies every day.
The commissioner complained that the ministry of environment and climate change doesn’t post enough of the water taking permits on the province’s environmental bill of rights, and even when it does, there’s a real lack of detailed information.
“The public gets no notice at all for three-quarters of water taking permits, including a large number of high risk permits,” said Saxe. “And of the ones where they do give notice, they don’t attach enough information so the public cannot make sensible comments.”
The pause on new bottling operations means Nestle cannot apply for a permit at a new well it purchased in Centre Wellington, near Guelph, Ont., that the township had wanted for its drinking water.
Centre Wellington Mayor Kelly Linton has called on the province to change the rules so municipalities get a better chance at securing a safe drinking water supply than a bottling company.
Nestle will be able to renew its permits to take up to 3.6 million litres of water a day from its well in Aberfoyle, where it has a bottling plant, and another 1.1 million litres a day at a well in nearby Erin, another community in Wellington county.