February 22, 2012

New Hillsburgh group would protest well renewal

As published in The Erin Advocate

People who are concerned about the impact of water extraction by the Nestlé company are gearing up to oppose renewal of a permit for its Hillsburgh well, and are hoping to form a local group affiliated with Wellington Water Watchers.

A range of water issues was discussed last week after the latest film in the 2012 Fast Forward series, organized by the Climate Change Action Group of Erin (CCAGE) and sponsored by Credit Valley Conservation (CVC).

The film was Water on the Table, a profile of Council of Canadians National Chair Maude Barlow, who has authored 16 books and been a prominent critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the World Trade Organization and oil sands development. As senior advisor on water to the president of the United Nations in 2009, she addressed the General Assembly:

"The problem is that we humans have seen the Earth and its water resources as something that exists for our benefit and economic advancement rather than as a living ecological system that needs to be safeguarded if it is to survive. The human water footprint surpasses all others and endangers life on Earth itself," she said.

"Water must be seen as a commons that belongs to the Earth and all species alike. It must be declared a public trust that belongs to the people, the ecosystem and the future. Clean water must be delivered as a public service, not a profitable commodity. We need to assert once and for all that access to clean, affordable water is a fundamental human right."

The assembly endorsed the right to clean water and sanitation in 2010, with 122 countries voting in favour, and 41 (including Canada) abstaining. The vote carries no legal force and does not affect Canada's sovereign rights over its water.

Nora Chaloner, Chair of the Guelph chapter of the Council of Canadians, said at the meeting that Barlow's work means a lot in the Global South. Almost 900 million people in the world lack safe drinking water and 2.6 billion have no access to basic sanitation.

"Unfortunately the countries that did not sign on to it are in the Global North, the big, prosperous countries, the developed countries, who don't really want to have water as a human right," she said.

Groups such as the Council of Canadians and the National Farmers' Union are also concerned that a trade deal known as CETA, now being negotiated between Canada and Europe, could affect municipal water. If towns and cities end up having to seek private investment to maintain their water and waste systems, they may be obliged to accept bids from foreign corporations. This could lead to rate hikes, cut-offs for low-income households, poorer environmental protection and lack of accountability.

Bottled water, of course, is already a commercial business. Nestlé's Hillsburgh permit comes up for renewal in August. There has been no identified harm to the local water supply to date, but there is concern because the MoE is underfunded and allows Nestlé to do the monitoring. A well protection agreement between Nestlé and Erin is designed to provide rapid response to any complaints by well owners.

The Ministry of the Environment (MoE) deals with a range of issues, including the length of the license period, the opportunities for public input, the monitoring of local water levels by the company and the fee that it pays – currently just $3.74 per million litres of water.

The issue is complex, because if water is taxed as a resource (like oil), it becomes more of a commodity – one that the US could claim is tradable on a larger scale under NAFTA.
The renewal for the Aberfoyle well was approved last year with no new restrictions on volume or time period, but with extensive monitoring of other wells in the area.

Wellington Water Watchers has promoted the safety of tap water and led the local fight against bottled water and high-volume water taking. Chair Mike Nagy, a speaker after the film last week, said the group hopes to persuade the MoE to take a broader view with a "water budget" for the region, and to consider all aspects of the bottled water, such as the harm caused by plastic bottles and extensive trucking.

"We don't want to be known as the anti-Nestlé group, that's not who the Water Watchers are, but that is one of our highest profile projects," he said. "We have lost faith in the Environmental Bill Registry for the permit to take water, we feel it is a flawed process...We had 8,000 people comment in 2007 on the Aberfoyle permit – that was basically dismissed by the Ministry."

Nagy said a new strategy is being developed for the Hillsburgh renewal, but it is not being made public yet. "It's all hands on deck, we need all resources, talents, anybody that can come forward," he said.

"I'd like to see a group of people in Hillsburgh and Erin get together and hammer out the issues," said teacher Chris Green, a Hillsburgh native.

"There is power in numbers," said Chaloner. "It starts by you talking to your neighbours and your friends, and groups getting together."

If you would like to get involved, or just get more information, contact Liz Armstrong of CCAGE at liz@ican.net or 519-833-4676, or Wellington Water Watchers at www.wellingtonwaterwatchers.ca, or 519-780-5030.

Holly Nadalin of Credit Valley Conservation, which will be offering its comments on the impact of the Nestlé well, also announced a new stewardship program, with details available soon on their website, www.creditvalleyca.ca. Rural landowners will be able to apply for 65-100 per cent funding for property improvements that will enhance water quality and other aspects of the local ecology.