Merville Water Guardians

A local battle to protect an aquifer from being turned into bottled water has grown into a BC-wide movement

by Jen Groundwater

water bottling plant

As 2018 began, becoming an activist was not among Bruce Gibbons’ New Year’s resolutions. He and his wife, Nicole Poirier, were enjoying early retirement on a small hobby farm on a quiet road near the headwaters of Portuguese Creek in Merville.

But everything changed on a Friday in early March, when they learned from the Merville Residents Association that a neighbour had received a conditional provincial license to bottle and sell water – 10,000 litres a day – from the local aquifer. Because bottling was not a permitted use on Scott MacKenzie and Regula Heynck’s rural residential property, the couple had requested a zoning exception. The matter was on the agenda for the next Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD) meeting – only two days away.

Everything changed when a neighbour received a conditional provincial license to bottle and sell water – 10,000 litres a day – from the local aquifer.

Gibbons – whose mild demeanour hides a remarkable persistence – recalls, “When I found out, I thought, ‘We have to stop this.’” He has a powerful belief that nobody should have a license to take water from a shared aquifer for profit.

Most British Columbians share this belief. In a 2018 public opinion poll, 91% of BC residents agreed that “fresh water is our most precious resource,” while 85% deemed fresh water “a basic human right not to be denied or sold off by governments or corporations.”

Gibbons was alarmed that a bottling operation could be approved in an area where most of the properties were designated as Agricultural Reserve Land (ALR), and where many farmers irrigate their crops from the aquifer. And, like many other new activists, he initially believed he just needed to talk to the right people to get an illogical situation sorted out.

Four years later, he’s still talking. He’s launched environmental appeals (denied). He’s filed Freedom of Information requests (unanswered). And he’s lobbied every municipal government in BC. What he’s found is overwhelming support for his common-sense cause – except from the provincial government.

British Columbia’s Water Sustainability Act (WSA), enacted in 2016, is meant “to ensure a sustainable supply of fresh, clean water that meets the needs of BC residents today and in the future.” But it nonetheless allows individuals and corporations to extract water for profit, as long as they’re licensed by the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.

After months, the CVRD turned down the rezoning request. During those months, Gibbons launched the Merville Water Guardians to share information and activate support when needed. The new group grew quickly, and Gibbons began making presentations to local governments on Vancouver Island and beyond.

His pitch resonated intuitively with most of his audiences. Fresh water is an essential resource that must be shared and safeguarded for the social good. Bottling water is not only unnecessary – British Columbia’s drinking water supply is, for the most part, very safe – it also supports the fossil fuel industry and leads to increased waste (a 2019 study showed only 15% of plastic packaging is successfully recycled in Canada).

Gibbons’ mission was to make local politicians aware that, although they couldn’t stop anyone with a provincial license from taking water from an aquifer, they could change bylaws to prevent water bottling in their jurisdiction. And many did: at press time, more than a dozen jurisdictions have already changed their bylaws. “Local government representatives are looking after their community, taking care of their community. They want to make their community better. They listen and they act,” notes Gibbons.

After Gibbons presented his case to the Strathcona Regional District (SRD), directors Brenda Leigh and Jim Abram took it to the Association of Vancouver Island Coastal Communities. AVICC unanimously adopted a resolution calling on the province to stop licensing the extraction of groundwater for commercial bottling purposes, on principle.

Next, the SRD took a similar resolution to the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM)’s conference in September 2019. Gibbons and the Water Guardians rejoiced when the UBCM passed the resolution with strong support, but the province replied with platitudes – and no action.

Gibbons gained valuable help from the Canadian Freshwater Alliance and the Comox Valley Council of Canadians. Both citizen groups had developed insights, resources, networks, and tools, garnered over years of waging similar battles; their shared expertise enabled the Merville Water Guardians to access grant funds and reach new audiences.

It’s been heartening for Gibbons to find allies in many places: “I’ve met really good people and was so surprised to find hundreds, if not thousands, of people out there doing this kind of work [for the] forests, water, environment.” Like many other activists before him, though, he’s discovered more questions than answers. The WSA is supposed “to ensure a sustainable supply of fresh, clean water that meets the needs of BC residents today and in the future.” So why are extraction licenses still being issued?

Scott MacKenzie’s initial conditional license to extract water expired December 31, 2020. Yet as this issue goes to press, the CVRD are about to address his amended application (details are not public at this time). This application has been emphatically rejected for a variety of reasons by a community, a regional district, and a First Nation, so why is the province still trying to make it happen?

Gibbons notes “how unfair it is for the provincial government to download decisions, responsibility, and the cost of fighting water-bottling to local governments.” But those local governments, thanks to the Guardians’ efforts, are now calling on the province to take some responsibility and “immediately cease the licensing and extraction of groundwater for commercial water bottling and/or bulk water exports from aquifers.”

BC residents need no reminders of the last 15 months of record heat, drought, wildfires, heavy rains, severe flooding, and back around to extreme heat. In a worsening planet-wide climate crisis, why doesn’t provincial water policy prioritize social good over one individual or corporation’s profit motive? The Merville Water Guardians are going to keep on asking those questions.

Jen Groundwater is a writer, editor, and non-fiction author, based in the Comox Valley.

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