May 12, 2010

Water Watchers promote tap water alternative

As published in The Erin Advocate

Ontario has some of the best tap water in the world, but many people choose to pay extra for bottled water. Wellington Water Watchers is working to reverse this trend, both to preserve the resource and to fight what they see as wasteful consumer spending.

Strong demand for bottled water has been "manufactured" by the bottled water industry, they say, scaring people away from tap water. Bottled water is not always purer or better tasting, and its quality is definitely less regulated.

For soft drink companies, it is all about marketing liquids in plastic bottles, and that is where much of the controversy swirls. Mike Nagy of Water Watchers, who has been a Green Party election candidate, was a guest at the recent showing of the film H2Oil in Erin, part of the Fast Forward Festival.

He held up a plastic water bottle, one quarter full of oil, representing the energy it takes to make that bottle. Arlene Slocombe, the group's executive director, said that the manufacturing process uses three times the volume of a bottle of water, to make one bottle. The group made a presentation to Erin high school students recently, urging them to use refillable water containers.

"Bottled water is one of the most energy intensive products," said Nagy. "I'm all in favour of making a profit, but we should not profit on water. Water is the new gold. Water is life – we cannot afford to waste it."

There are environmental costs not only to make the bottles, but also to ship the water, and dispose of the bottles – many of which end up in landfills or shipped overseas.

Erin has a special interest in the industry, since bottling giant Nestlé has a well in Hillsburgh, with a steady stream of tanker trucks shuttling to a plant in Aberfoyle. They have a permit to take up to 1.1 million litres per day, but usually only draw about 25 per cent of that.

Nagy said that although the Nestlé well has not caused discernible harm to the local water supply, he is still concerned. "We do not understand the long-term cumulative effects," he said.

Nestlé has made an effort to demonstrate care for the environment by installing attractive containers for "public spaces recycling" at Erin's new McMillan Park. Gail Cosman, President of Nestlé Waters Canada, said this "will help to put the community at the forefront of environmental sustainability in this province." She said the same thing, word for word, about Aberfoyle when containers were installed there.

Nestlé says the bottled water industry uses just .02 per cent of all permit-controlled water in Canada (compared to users like power plants, manufacturers, municipalities and farmers).

"We are committed to operating our business with no adverse effect on our neighbours, even in the event of drought conditions," said Cosman. "We only harvest what can be replaced by nature."

A well protection agreement between Nestlé and Erin is designed to provide rapid response to any complaints by well owners. The firm promises to pay for scientific evaluation and to fix or replace any well that fails because of their water taking. They also promise to cut back or stop production during drought conditions, if they decide it is necessary.

Nagy would like to see those cutbacks mandated by law. The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario has recommended that step-by-step cutbacks for low water conditions be built into the permit process.

Nestlé has access to a valuable resource through a low-cost provincial license, without paying fees to the Town. Nestlé improved its reputation on that front by donating $30,000 last year towards construction of McMillan Park.

Erin Mayor Rod Finnie was quoted as saying, "This is the latest example of the company's commitment to working with Erin to further enhance the quality of life in what is one of the very best communities to live, work and play in Ontario." A few days later, I saw those same words in another newspaper, but in reference to Aberfoyle, spoken by the president of the Optimist Club there after Nestlé donated $50,000 to a recreation centre.

It is simply a sign of a coordinated public relations effort. Naturally, Nagy is unimpressed, calling these "token" donations. "They do this all around the world," he said.

Some municipalities have banned the sale of bottled water in their facilities, and last month the Nova Scotia was the first province to announce they would do so. The Polaris Institute is organizing a petition to have Ontario do the same.

Check out for information on the Water Watchers-supported effort to map places to fill up your water bottle for free. Some other interesting sites:, and