Tucked away in Elora’s countryside is a ramshackle building with a faded blue-and-white sign that reads: Middlebrook Water Co. For more than a decade, the local company has run a trade in 8-gallon water jugs — the kind coworkers gather around to talk about the weather — and water for local swimming pools.
Soon, the site could see a new life. Bottled water giant Nestlé is eyeing the Middlebrook water source as a potential backup for its main Aberfoyle well, which currently has a permit for taking 660 gallons per minute. If the Elora well passes quality tests and its permit is re-approved, it could be authorized to dispense as much as 300 gallons of spring-water per minute, and in the hands of new owners with a market far greater than the local offices and pools.
For the past decade, Middlebrook has used a fraction of its permit, which allows a draw of 1.6-million litres per day. According to Save Our Water, a local group protesting Nestlé’s potential purchase of the site, Middlebrook used just 10 per cent of its allotment over ten years.
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The purchase process is still in the early stages. This is the fourth such well that Nestlé is evaluating — they abandoned three others after the pump tests failed there. Nestlé has optioned the Middlebrook property and is seeking government approval to do a pump test that would check whether their operation would affect nearby wells. The same test was done at Middlebrook in 2004 and found no negative effects.
But already opposition to the conditional purchase is ramping up, with Save Our Water cautioning against letting what they call “big water” take over the Middlebrook well. They’re concerned Nestlé’s operation will negatively affect the watershed.
“You only get so many chances to protect the resources you have, so we're kind of a ground zero in our watershed and in this province about how this water-taking is going to happen,” said Libby Carlaw, a volunteer with Elora-based Save Our Water. Together with the Wellington Water Watchers, the group has been publicly opposing Nestlé’s move.
The company says it is seeking the site as a “supplementary/back-up” well to its main operation, but won’t say just how much of the permit allotment it anticipates using.
“We don't know. It's a supplementary use. For example, we're using about 60 per cent of what is available at our primary well at Aberfoyle. Middlebrook will be a lot less than that,” said John Challinor, director of corporate affairs with Nestlé Waters Canada.
In Ontario, commercial water permits allow companies like Nestlé to extract and bottle water from wells for a small fee. In the case of the Elora well, the current permit is for a draw of 300 gallons-per-minute. If it is reapproved, Nestlé has indicated they would not need more than that. The current permit allows the taking of 1.6-million litres per day. The permit holder pays $3.71 per million litres of water taken from the ground — meaning it would cost $5.93 to take the daily maximum amount of water.
Christina Cook, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford who has studied water management in Canada, says provincial regulations haven’t kept pace with the rising demand on resources in Canada.
“It goes back to this drawers of water and hewers of wood mentality we have, that we just really for so long have been in such a place of abundance in the bulk of the country,” says Cook. New demands and the knowledge that our natural resources are not unlimited have changed the landscape, she says. “It requires us to bring a really different approach to how we think of ourselves and some of these old themes that we've stuck to.”
She suggested measures like an environmental levy to contribute towards a drought fund, or seasonal pricing models, as ways to modernize the permit system.
In British Columbia, the government has committed to reviewing its newly implemented water permit fees — set at $2.25 per million litres — after a public outcry amid drought conditions.
Cook says BC’s water legislation is sorely in need of modernization: it is largely based on legislation developed for the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. Nevertheless, updating it has been difficult politically.
“The bulk of the people are in this mindset of we have it let's use it,” she says. “But the rules of the game are shifting and we need to shift as well.”
Carlaw, who has lived in Elora for more than 40 years, says each summer they’re faced with watering restrictions imposed by the Grand River Conservation Authority, but that Nestlé would not face mandatory restrictions unless the permit imposed that. In response to these criticisms, Nestlé says it has voluntarily complied with six drought restrictions since it began taking water in Wellington County. The company has previously challenged mandatory drought restrictions on its Hillsburgh permit.
More than 130 people attended a public consultation in Elora Wednesday — one of several being held by Nestlé in the area. According to a report in the Guelph Mercury, residents were largely skeptical of Nestlé’s plan.
Carlaw and others are worried about the effect that a full use of the permit could have on the area’s watershed and the long-term implications of the sale.
“We go to the meetings and they're very friendly and very kind and it's very polite, but at the same time we're all playing our parts in this grand theatre of what's going on in water provincially, nationally, internationally and of course in our own little local town,” says Carlaw. “But it's bigger than our small town … we want to look at protecting water as a resource not only in our community but in our province, our country and in our world as well.”
Image credit: ricardo/zone41.net/flickr