Here’s a question that our provincial government ought to be able to answer but can’t: How much water is the world’s biggest bottled water seller withdrawing from wells in British Columbia?
The province doesn’t know because it isn’t asking. It does not require Nestlé Waters Canada to obtain a permit to withdraw water. It does not require Nestlé to report its withdrawals. And it does not charge Nestlé a penny for the water it uses, even though the company profits handsomely from the hundreds of millions of bottles it sells under popular brand names like Perrier, Montclair and Vittel.
To its credit, Nestlé has in the past (it no longer does) voluntarily filed written reports on
its water withdrawals with the District of Hope, which draws from the same aquifer as the company and uses it to supply 6,500 local residents with their drinking water.
But voluntary disclosure misses the point. The provincial government is responsible for managing public waters for our collective good. In the absence of basic information, the question must be asked: Is government doing all it can to look after this vital natural resource?
Again to its credit, when I contacted Nestlé to ask how much water it withdraws at Hope it quickly volunteered the information. In 2012, corporate affairs spokesperson John Challinor said, Nestlé withdrew 71 million gallons, or enough water to fill more than 537 million half-litre bottles. Immense as this sounds, Challinor called it the proverbial drop in the bucket.
“Based on our mapping we drew less than seven-10ths of one per cent of all available
water in the subwatershed for drawing,” Challinor said in an email.
But once again, this misses the point. Our mapping? Surely it is government that should know what water is available for Nestlé and other commercial interests to use, not the other way around. That vital information, along with data on what major consumers actually use, should be in the public domain for all to see. And it should fall to government to gather and report it, while also ensuring the public that our water resources are not at risk of being overdrawn.
It is worth noting that these gaps in information apply to groundwater, not surface water.
B.C. has no comprehensive groundwater regulation, so withdrawals from wells are virtually untracked. The province does issue water licences governing withdrawals from surface sources such as rivers, lakes and streams. And it places terms in such licences that limit water takings.
Even so, B.C.’s sound management of surface waters is itself in question given three significant deficiencies. One, B.C. has no single agency tracking and reporting water use.
Two, the province does not impose across-the-board water-metering requirements. And three, while the government does charge surface water users fees for what they use, the fees are often embarrassingly low.
Environment minister Mary Polak has said further that “improved measurement and reporting of water use will be a key feature” in legislation that is now expected in 2014. All of this is to be applauded and cannot come soon enough.
Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He is author of Counting Every Drop: The Case for Water Use Reporting in B.C.