Wellington Water Watchers, Ecojustice and the Council of Canadians are celebrating Nestlé Canada Inc.'s move to back down from a bottled water fight after the groups challenged Nestlé on its attempt to have drought restrictions dropped from one of its water takings in Ontario. On September 17, Nestlé announced that it was withdrawing its appeal of drought restrictions on its water permit in Wellington County. A final decision by the Environmental Review Tribunal on whether it will approve Nestlé's withdrawal and dismiss the proceedings is expected in the coming weeks.
Nestlé is allowed to pump and package 1.13 million litres of groundwater per day in Hillsburgh in Wellington County but challenged restrictions placed on its "Permit To Take Water" last year by the Ministry of the Environment. Last February, Nestlé announced it had persuaded the Ministry to remove the mandatory reductions, but this agreement was successfully challenged before the Environmental Review Tribunal of Ontario by the community groups. In August, the Tribunal ruled that the settlement agreement between Nestlé and the Ministry was not in the public interest and that the original appeal should proceed to a full hearing.
"It was clear to us from the beginning that the lack of hydrological information would not support Nestlé's appeal for very long. Sadly, the Ministry of the Environment failed to protect our communities' water sources by negotiating a questionable settlement with Nestlé. It took action from Ecojustice lawyers representing the Council of Canadians and Wellington Water Watchers to make it clear that this appeal was unjustifiable, indefensible and not in the public interest," says Mike Nagy, chair of Wellington Water Watchers. "Drought conditions are occurring more often due to climate change and the Ministry is not taking its responsibility to protect our groundwater seriously. Community groups shouldn't have to put time and money into challenging the Ministry to do its job."
"Nestlé didn't deserve the red-carpet treatment, especially not when governments must preserve access to safe water for local communities," said Will Amos, Director of the Ecojustice Clinic at the University of Ottawa. "Nestlé's withdrawal of its appeal restores the correct order for water protection in Ontario, which is people, planet and then corporations who profit from our resources."
"This case has highlighted the failings of the "Permit to Take Water" process in Ontario, particularly during times of drought. Not all permits are or should be treated equally, and we believe it is the government's duty to protect groundwater and to prioritize water taking in favour of reasonable community use. We hope to see more mandatory restrictions on the water takings throughout the province where profit before conservation exists," said Emma Lui, national water campaigner for Council of Canadians. "In fact, we hope to see the Ministry step up and uphold the precautionary principle to protect community water supplies when deciding whether to renew Nestlé's permit once it expires in 2017."
Nestlé's water takings and the lack of groundwater regulation in British Columbia have come under public scrutiny over the last couple of months. The company withdraws up to 265 million litres a year for free from a well in Hope, B.C.
The movement to promote the human right to water and public water services recently spread to Switzerland where Nestlé is headquartered. Bern, Switzerland recently became the first Blue Community outside of Canada. The Blue Communities Project, launched by the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Union of Public Employees, designates municipalities Blue Communities when municipal governments pass resolutions to ban bottled water from municipal facilities, recognize water as a human right to water and promote public not-for-profit water and sanitation services.
Wellington Water Watchers, Ecojustice and the Council of Canadians have sent a letter to the Minister of the Environment urging reforms to Ontario laws and policies needed to adequately protect Ontario's rivers, lakes and groundwater. The groups' recommendations include that the Ministry prioritize water uses, remove barriers to declaring a Level 3 drought and conduct cumulative impact assessments of water takings. Although the need for some of these reforms has been documented in previous studies, this case has again demonstrated the urgency of this need.