The bottled water industry enjoyed impressive growth until 2007, the result of relentless advertising, ubiquitous availability, and a propaganda assault on public water systems. 2.36 billion litres of water were sold in Canada in 2006, worth an estimated $708 million. In the US in 2007, 33.3 billion litres were sold for $11.5 billion.
In 2008, growth turned negative. Recession squeezed shoppers’ wallets, and bottled water fell off their shopping lists. It wasn’t just recession, though. People weren’t buying the lie about unsafe tap water. And mountains of bottles in blue boxes and landfills wereevidence that there were more consequences to bottled water than just water.
“Tap water” campaigns started to show some real successes, led in Canada by the Council of Canadians, and given a boost in 2009 by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM). FCM urged municipalities to phase out the sale and purchase of bottled water, and to develop awareness campaigns about the positive benefits and quality of municipal water supplies. It has found real traction in municipal governments.
The bottled water industry had reached a turning point. At the price-sensitive low-end, and in the sillier by the year “premium water” market, excess bottling capacity meant the boom was over. “Mom-and-pop” water shops were closing their doors.
Canada’s three top bottlers are Coca-Cola (Dasani, tap water from various cities in Canada), Pepsi-Cola (Aquafina, tap water) and Nestlé (Pure Life, in BC the source is spring water from Hope). Canada’s largest private bottler, Ontario-based Ice River Springs, had by 2010 closed its BC operations, including its bottling plant at Illecillewaet Springs in Glacier National Park – the third largest bottled water licence in BC – and another plant in Cranbrook which obtained water from a local well. Ice River Springs now serves its BC market from Calgary. In a smaller but similar rationalization, Snowcap Waters of Fanny Bay sold its mid-Vancouver Island customer base to Duncan-based Columbia Ice, and closed its bottling plant forever.
Some bottlers obtain water from “pristine glacial” sources and from a local well or tap. Natural Glacial Waters trucks its Névé brand “super premium glacial water” 160 km from the Adam River west of Sayward to its plant at Fanny Bay on Vancouver Island. Its less special “glacial spring” brand, Canadian Icefield, is obtained from a local well with no glacier anywhere nearby. Perhaps the glacier is underground, suggesting that hell is freezing over. Its primary markets are Asian. Watermark Beverages of Vancouver follows the same scheme. It obtains its Ice Age and Canadian Music water from Alpine Creek in Toba Inlet, and the rest from Vancouver’s municipal supply. Its big market is California. These and many other bottlers will bottle their water with your label, or you can supply your own water.
A Drop in the Bucket
Until 2000, there were about 29 licences issued in BC allowing water removal from streams, lakes, and springs for bottling purposes. From 2000 to 2007 – the end of the boom years – there were another 13 issued. Issued licences total 22,637 cubic metres per day (m3/d) (22,637,000 litres).
When it is multiplied out to litres or gallons, it seems like a lot of water. Compared to the volumes of water removed from BC’s lakes and streams for most other purposes, however, water for bottling is simply not on the same scale. It is even less than the 36,000 m3/d used for snow-making at Whistler-Blackcomb, less than a tenth the water permit for the Harmac pulp mill in Nanaimo. And it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the water used for power generation.
The application fee for a bottling licence is $500 for less than 200 cubic metres per day, and $2000 for 200 m3/d and up. The annual water rental is 85 cents per thousand cubic metres. Actual annual revenue to government in 2010 was a puny $8845. [This total is impossible to reconcile with the quantity of water licenced. Government was unable to explain it, either.]
Bottling and Bulk Exports
The licence requires that water be sold in containers of 20 litres or less. Once it’s in a bottle, it can be sold anywhere. There is no limit to how much bottled water can be exported.
Bottling is quite a different scale of water handling than large-scale exports in which pipelines or tankers move the water, which once at the destination can be pumped directly into municipal water systems. BC’s Water Protection Act prohibits the direct removal of water from BC, and prohibits the large-scale transfer of water between major watersheds.
At the national level, most of Canada’s water is largely unprotected, and vulnerable to the large diversion schemes which crop up from time-to-time. The International Boundary Water Treaty Act prohibits large-scale exports along Canada’s borders. Water is NOT exempted in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), as are raw logs for example. The definitive answer to the NAFTA question will only be decided when some party forces a legal decision. David Boyd in Unnatural Law says that the free trade agreement places Canada’s water at risk.
Bottling Bute and Other Inlets
As the bottled water business retrenched in 2008, something unexpected happened. At least 51 licence applications were submitted for water for bottling from streams in Knight, Bute, Toba and Jervis Inlets. While some have since been abandoned, between 34 and 40 or more applications are still active. Each application is for 112.5 m3/d.
The project plan is described in a report by Sigma Engineering. The intent is to extract the permitted quantity of water from each stream in each of the inlets on a daily basis. A skiff will approach the mouth of each stream, and with a flexible hose and a pump where necessary, will transfer the water to a tank on the skiff. The capacity of the tank on the skiff is 112.5 m3/d – apparently the tank determined the quantity of water applied for from each stream.
The skiff will transfer its water to a barge in the inlet, and then move on to the next stream. At intervals, the barge, or barges, will be towed to a bottling plant, most likely in the Vancouver area. The plan states that the applicants will not own or operate the bottling facility.
Subsequent clarifications by Frank Voelker, Band Manager for the Kwiakah First Nation, described the project quite differently: only 3 to 6 streams will be used each day, only 34 licences are being sought, bottling facilities will be on Vancouver Island and the mainland, and plastic bottles will not be used.
The initial applications were filed by William S. Chornobay, a resident of Langley, self-employed businessman and former mining exploration executive. Subsequent applications were then filed by Da’naxda’xw Awaetlala First Nation et al (Knight Inlet), the Kwiakah First Nation et al (Bute, Toba and Jervis), and most recently by 0879144 BC Ltd. All of the applications have Mr. Chornobay in common, though he has chosen not to speak with Watershed Sentinel or other media.
At best, the ostensible water bottling project is fraught with challenges. But perhaps these water licences are being “staked” in advance of a reformed BC Water Act which will allow licences for more opportunistic trading of permits in new water markets. Or is funding from Indian Affairs and Northern Development for First Nation community economic development passing through the Da’naxda’xw Awaetlala and Kwiakah accounts to Sigma and Chornobay?
Notices posted in local newspapers in December about the most recent of these applications triggered action by five groups – Friends of Bute Inlet, Campbell River chapter of the Council of Canadians, Sierra Club Quadra Island, Sierra Club Malaspina, and the Sunshine Coast Conservation Association.
They appealed to Murray Coell, BC’s Minister of Environment, to designate all of these related water and land applications as a single reviewable project under the Environmental Assessment Act, arguing that the full scope and impacts of the project will not be assessed by any other process. The application-by-application permit-stamping modus operandi of the MNRO is not appropriate for a scheme of this complexity.
The four inlets in question are already subject to some of BC’s largest run-of-river power generation proposals, notably those in Toba Inlet and Bute Inlet by Plutonic Power Corp. and General Electric. Licences to remove water from 34 to 40 or more streams in those same inlets will exacerbate environmental impacts. When is enough? What are the cumulative impacts of all these projects, ecologically, socially, economically?
Reviewing the situation, Andrew Gage of West Coast Environmental Law concluded that MNRO must at least extend the public comment period on all the applications and order the proponent to provide a description of the entire project. In his letter to MNRO, Gage said, “The optics of breaking up the project in this way, and inviting public comment on only individual pieces of the project in isolation, does not encourage public confidence.”
As of press time, neither West Coast Environmental Law nor the local groups had received replies from anyone in government.
Proposed revisions to BC’s Water Act have suggested a future for “Water Markets” and permit trading. How might the unused capacity in all these licences be used in these water markets? Is this a setup for a bulk export of water from BC?
Is bottling a use of water which the BC government should be encouraging? Or should the province follow the example of a growing number of local governments not just in Canada, but around the world, and discourage the mass spread of bottled water?
Arthur Caldicott is an energy researcher and a frequent contributor to the Watershed Sentinel.