by Carl Anders, President, Water Protection Coalition of South Grey
After three years of fighting a water-bottling company’s plans to take 176 million litres (35 million gallons) of water a year from a spring near Flesherton Ontario, opposition from local residents is still growing – despite letters from the company president (an environmental lawyer) threatening legal action.
The company, Artemesia Waters Ltd., was set up to exclusively supply spring water to Echo Springs Water Company whose bottling plant is located 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the Flesherton source. Echo Springs recently merged with Canada’s Choice Spring Water Company of Alberta.
The spring source feeds a stream in a 20-acre wetland just a few metres upstream of a provincially significant wetland at the headwaters of the Rocky Saugeen River that subsequently flows into Lake Huron. Based on a 4-day pump test that caused a 78% reduction in the flow of the wetland stream, the company requested a permit for 5.6 litres/second (75 gallons/minute), or nearly 140% of the natural flow from the spring. Environmental guidelines typically limit spring takings to no more than 10% of the natural outflow. Despite that – and strong local opposition – the Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE) granted a permit in October 1999, incredibly for the full amount requested.
The opposition came from a grassroots organization, the Water Protection Coalition of South Grey. Concerned about environmental impacts of the proposed taking, the Coalition formed in December 1998, and in just three weeks gathered 2,425 signatures on a petition opposing the company’s plans. With money raised locally, and a grant from the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network and Fund, the Coalition commissioned a botanical inventory of the wetland, and an independent review of the company’s hydrogeological report. The results confirmed the Coalition’s belief that the proposed water taking seriously threatens the health of the wetland and the fish habitat and spawning grounds in the stream.
The Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) assisted Coalition members in filing a comprehensive request for “leave to appeal” the MOE permit. But the Environmental Review Tribunal accepted the company’s argument that the wetland stream did not represent a fish habitat, and refused to hear an appeal. Recently, however, the Coalition was vindicated when the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) confirmed the wetland stream is a fish habitat. With very little water actually having been withdrawn, and the permit now up for renewal, the DFO ruling represents new and important information that the Coalition hopes will make MOE seriously reconsider applying the 10% guideline.
Meanwhile, in 2001 the Coalition joined forces with the local municipality, the long-established Grey Association for Better Planning (GABP), and farmers’ associations to oppose a rezoning of the agricultural land from which the water-taking is to occur. While successful in denying the rezoning on the basis that the spring water source is located in the heart of actively farmed cattle land, an exception was granted by a hearing board allowing the company to set up a “small scale” commercial operation. GABP is currently seeking to appeal the board’s decision to the courts based on two errors in law.
Both the permit renewal – which would represent approximately 25% of the needs of the entire Ontario bottled water industry – and the ruling on zoning amendments have broader implications, likely setting provincial precedents. This comes at a time when other players are trying to expand existing operations with plans to ship Ontario’s water in bottles to distant U.S. markets. The Canadian government opposes the bulk transfer of water out of major basins, but doesn’t define bulk transfer in terms of gross volumes. As long as it’s in containers of 20 litres (5 gallons) or less, or for the purpose of manufacturing products, the transfer is permitted.
Encouraged by recent national media coverage, the Coalition is digging in, anticipating another tough battle on the renewal of the water-taking permit.
For more information on this issue, contact Carl Anders, President, Water Protection Coalition of South Grey, RR5 Flesherton, Ontario N0C 1E0, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, check out the following web links:
“Water War”, CBC Disclosure, January 22, 2002, Story: www.cbc.ca/disclosure/archives/020122.html#water,
Watch the story: www.cbc.ca/disclosure/media/020122_water.ram
“CELA Intervenor, December 1999: “Case Work: Water Fight an Uphill Battle – A Client’s Perspective”: www.cela.ca/Intervenor/24_4/24_4h2o.htm
Environmental Review Tribunal “Leave to Appeal” decision, December 17, 1999: www.ert.gov.on.ca/pdf’s/1999-Noble%20et%20al.PDF