Editorial: Bottled water isn’t the issue

Those who are angry that Nestlé is extracting and bottling millions of litres of B.C.’s fresh water are perhaps caught up in a minor issue while much bigger issues are overlooked.

The Swiss-based food-and-beverage company bottles 265 million litres of water each year, which it takes from an aquifer near Hope. Under B.C.’s new groundwater rules, to go into effect in 2016, those extracting groundwater for industrial use will be required to pay fees to use the water. It doesn’t change much — under the new rules, Nestlé will pay $596 a year to extract its water.

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And that has people mad, especially during a drought. More than 200,000 people from across the country — half of them from B.C. — signed a petition that was presented to Environment Minister Mary Polak’s office. The outcry has not landed on deaf ears — Premier Christy Clark said the government will rethink the new groundwater rate structure, as the petition and other outcries show the public thinks bottled-water companies should pay more.

Be careful, warns former B.C. Liberal MLA Judi Tyabji, who argues that to charge a “fair price” would commodify B.C.’s groundwater, which would risk triggering a clause in the North American Free Trade Agreement “that says if a government is selling water, and it’s being exported to the U.S., then we can’t reduce the volume.”

But that’s not an issue, say a variety of legal and trade experts. Water was not discussed during the NAFTA negotiations with the U.S. and Mexico. And bulk water exports — anything in containers over 20 litres — are banned by both the federal and provincial governments. Legal attempts to contest that ban have not been successful.

So the spectre of pipelines and tankers carrying our fresh water south are largely unfounded. And the amount withdrawn by Nestlé in a year is about how much treated water the Greater Victoria region uses in two days, much of it for golf courses and landscaping.

Nestlé says it uses less than one per cent of the capacity of the aquifer from which it draws its water, and the Canadian Bottled Water Association says its industry extracts 0.01 per cent of the available groundwater in B.C.

Still, the sentiment that bottling companies should pay more is valid (and the industry is not opposed to paying higher fees). A fee that merely covers the cost of processing a permit is insufficient — the fees should help finance a broad inventory of the province’s water supply, a look at how much there is and how it is being protected.

So while Nestlé and other water-bottling companies are not sucking B.C. dry, nor are they likely any threat to the water supply, there are still environmental concerns.

Why bottled water anyway? In North America, most people have access to a decent water supply. Greater Victoria’s water supply is of excellent quality. Yet you can pay as much as 10,000 times as much for bottled water as you pay for tap water.

It’s an unnecessary expense, and one that has the potential to harm the environment. The amount of water needed to manufacture a plastic water bottle is three times what the container holds, according to a website called HealthResearchFunding.org.

Plastic water bottles can be recycled, but the rate of return is low in many places, and the containers are a major source of pollution all over the world.

We should be less concerned about the water being taken from the ground for bottling and more concerned about the bottles.

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