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Areas hard hit by B.C. drought now the target of bottled water corporations

Commercial applications to take water are on the rise, sparking a province-wide debate about who should profit off B.C.'s imperilled freshwater resources

This story is part of When in Drought, a series about threats to B.C.’s imperilled freshwater systems and the communities working to implement solutions.

Widespread drought and wildfires swept western Canada during this summer’s record-breaking heatwaves. But in B.C., it isn’t just the heat that has environmentalists and locals concerned, as applications for new water bottling permits — some within the province’s most arid regions — are on the rise

Many water bottling applications fall within areas that saw stage 3, 4 and 5 drought levels during the summer. And as more pour in, the affected communities have sparked a province-wide debate on whether it’s time for B.C. to crack down on new water-bottling permits.

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Jamie Fletcher, a councillor for the High Bar First Nation, said one of the primary reasons that no members of his nation live on their reserve is the lack of access to drinking water. Instead, many live on their traditional territory in the nearby town of Clinton — where members of the High Bar First Nation and other residents are currently in the midst of a battle against a water bottling plant proposed by a Surrey-based investment company. In its application to the province, which is still under review, Clinton Hongyan Zhenghong International Investment Inc. says it intends to bottle up to 864,000 litres of water per day just south of Clinton, for export. According to a 2016 study on water use in the province, that’s more water than 2,500 British Columbians use each day — assuming they have access to clean water.

Fletcher and other members of his nation are opposed to the proposed bottling plant. 

“This year, we just went through a drought and it showed us we don’t have available water in our water table to support this project,” he said.

“Between growing communities, drought and the wildfire situation, I definitely have huge concerns of us being able to sustain [companies] tapping into our water resource in the local area and selling it.”

Cutoff Valley, north of Clinton, B.C., nearby the proposed site of a new water bottling plant. Photo: Government of British Columbia / Flickr

New polling released in October by the Real Estate Foundation of BC and the University of Victoria’s POLIS Water Sustainability Project found increasing concern about community water sources. Sixty-six per cent of British Columbians now say they are concerned about the potential for a major water crisis in their community in the next few years — up from 57 per cent in 2018. Eighty-five per cent of respondents said they were concerned about bulk water extraction by commercial water bottlers. 

Recent report proposes a moratorium on new water bottling permits

A recent report from the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre found B.C.’s water bottling industry has brought the province to a tipping point in managing its natural resources. The report notes at least eight applications for water-bottling licences — including two within B.C.’s most arid regions — were recently submitted to the province.

There is some disagreement on this figure, as the province says only six licences are under consideration, while community and Indigenous organizations have said an additional five are being considered.

“We’ve come to the end of [an era when] you can use as much water whenever you want,” said Deborah Curran, executive director of the Environmental Law Centre, pointing to the rise in stage 5 droughts and wildfires across the province this past summer.

“We can’t wait until there’s a crisis before we take action.”

The report proposes a moratorium on new water bottling permits in the province due to concerns of residents over the impact of groundwater extraction, a lack of meaningful collaboration with local Indigenous groups and plastic bottle pollution

On the ground, Fletcher feels that consultation with Indigenous people on issues like the Clinton water bottling plant has been treated like a checkbox by local and provincial governments, instead of the meaningful, engaged and consent-driven process it should be. 

One concern shared by Fletcher and many environmentalists in B.C. is the low cost of groundwater removed from B.C.’s aquifers. Water bottling companies pay $2.25 per million litres, which Curran says allows for water to be bottled cheaply and exported. 

Jamie Fletcher, Clinton, water bottling, moratorium, High Bar First Nation
Fletcher said he is concerned about the lack of meaningful consultation with First Nations when it comes to permitting licences for commercial water bottling plants. Photo: Frank Luca / The Narwhal

According to the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations, B.C. currently licenses about 16.75 billion litres of water for bottling each year, at a return of $44,000 (or less than a penny per bottle) for the provincial government. This amounts to the annual water use of more than 92,000 British Columbians over the course of a year — a significant portion of which, the province says, is sourced from municipal water systems. 

All this while there are drinking water advisories in 20 First Nation communities across B.C.

“Our communities are growing, our climate is changing — everything is putting stress on water resources. B.C. has always been known to have abundant water, we’ve been very lucky that way,” said Bruce Gibbons, a Vancouver Island-based advocate for water management. 

“But we can’t continue on assuming that we will always have abundant water because things are changing.”

Water scarcity is a pressing concern: according to the Environmental Law Centre report, 63 per cent of British Columbians live in water-stressed areas. This issue is anticipated to grow more severe as the climate crisis increases the frequency of droughts and unprecedented heatwaves. Not to mention, water bottles account for one of the biggest pollutants in the country, according to the Environmental Law Centre report, with more than 120 million bottles unaccounted for in the past year. 

This issue has been increasingly on the minds of residents and officials in recent years. The Union of B.C. Municipalities passed a resolution in 2019 calling on the B.C. government to stop issuing groundwater extraction licences to commercial water bottling operations in the province — a measure that, so far, has not been heeded.

“But we can’t continue on assuming that we will always have abundant water because things are changing.”

Bruce Gibbons, Vancouver Island-based advocate for water management

In response to the University of Victoria’s report and the proposed moratorium, the Ministry of Forests stopped short of committing to specific actions.

“Staff are reviewing the report in depth and considering it in the context of working with Indigenous Peoples to advance reconciliation and ensuring water is sustainably managed in B.C.,” Tyler Hooper, a spokesperson for the ministry, said.

“While the province has not contemplated a moratorium on water bottling licences to date, we acknowledge there is high public interest in this issue and the allocation of groundwater used for this commercial purpose. We will study the report further and continue to consider public concerns while monitoring developments, particularly the potential and actual impacts of climate change and population growth on domestic water supply needs.”

One of the problems Curran cites is the lack of clarity around how water is actually used in the province.

“We’re one of the last jurisdictions in the world to regulate the use of groundwater, and that only started in 2016,” Curran said, referring to the passage of the Water Sustainability Act. 

“We’ve barely begun to understand what the use burden is on aquifers in B.C., to quantify that, and then to ask the question of whether or not that’s sustainable.”

According to Curran, B.C. doesn’t yet have a complete understanding of the water balance in each community across the province, including the stress put on each aquifer and how much total water is being withdrawn. Only 15 per cent of existing commercial water bottling operators are licensed, she said.

Deborah Curran, B.C., freshwater
Deborah Curran, executive director of the Environmental Law Centre, said B.C. needs to be proactive when it comes to protecting freshwater resources, especially after the summer drought. “We can’t wait until there’s a crisis before we take action.” Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

The Canadian Bottled Water Association (CBWA) declined to answer questions regarding the report and water bottling in B.C., but provided a statement referencing Ontario’s updated regulations around water taking, saying it is being managed sustainably.

“CBWA believes that all permitting decisions must be based on science facts and data to ensure proper resource protection,” said Elizabeth Griswold, the Canadian Bottled Water Association’s executive director.

“Permits issued by the province are based on sound science and the bottled water industry uses less than 0.02 per cent of groundwater in [B.C.]: a small fraction of all permitted water use.”

Although the Ministry of Forests could not confirm the data provided by the Canadian Bottled Water Association, and Griswold declined to provide a source for it, the province said that is not an unreasonable estimation.

However, Danielle Paydli, B.C. organizer for the Canadian Freshwater Alliance, said there’s a gap in the province’s knowledge of how much water is available in B.C. aquifers. And with only a small fraction of water bottling plants licensed, even less is known about how those aquifers are being used. As more applications for groundwater use are submitted, the Ministry of Forests says this picture will become more clear.

Danielle Paydli, B.C. water bottling
Danielle Paydli, B.C. organizer for the Canadian Freshwater Alliance, said the province lacks important information on groundwater abundance and use. Photo: Submitted by Danielle Paydli

B.C. could take a beat from other jurisdictions on water bottling

Currently, in B.C., the most successful campaign for a water bottling moratorium started in a small Vancouver Island town in 2018.

Bruce Gibbons didn’t mean to start a province-wide campaign when he first organized a rally against one of his neighbours in Merville, B.C. The neighbour had secured a licence from the province to withdraw and bottle up to 10,000 litres of freshwater per day from the community’s shared aquifer — a prospect that deeply concerned Gibbons.

“There’s a lot of people in the Comox Valley that have trouble at the best of times: their wells run dry, their wells are intermittent depending on the weather or depending on the season,” he said. “It was just a big concern that the government would allow somebody to draw thousands of litres of water from that shared aquifer, bottle it and sell it for profit.”

Over 200 people showed up at Gibbons’ rally, with attendees filling the Comox Valley Regional District board room and overflowing into the parking lot to show their opposition at the rezoning meeting one Monday morning in 2018. 

Gibbons’ group, the Merville Water Guardians, with support from the Canadian Freshwater Alliance and K’ómoks First Nation, campaigned for months to deny the rezoning necessary for commercial water bottling. After hundreds of letters to local and provincial representatives, petitions and door-to-door campaigning, the Comox Valley Regional District voted unanimously against the rezoning. They also signed a historic agreement with the K’ómoks First Nation to “collaboratively manage and conserve” the valley’s water resources.

In the years since, Gibbons has presented in person or sent written presentations to mayors, city councillors and regional district directors of every community in B.C. His goal is to implore them to take action to better regulate the use of groundwater in the water bottling industry. To his knowledge, at least 10 communities have since changed their water bottling bylaws.

The Canadian Freshwater Alliance worked alongside Gibbons to send 30,000 letters from British Columbians to local municipalities ahead of the 2019 Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in support of the resolution for a water bottling moratorium, which passed. However, the province has yet to take action in support of this resolution.

Other jurisdictions in Canada and further afield are also working to improve how they manage their water.

Ontario temporarily instituted a moratorium in 2016 on new water bottling permits that allowed the province to assess the state of water management and update its water quantity management framework. The moratorium expired in April 2021, once again allowing new applications and permit amendments. 

An aerial view of a pink sunset over the Comox Valley
The Comox Valley Regional District voted unanimously to forego rezoning that would have allowed commercial water bottling. Photo: Cole Freeman

According to Michelle Woodhouse, water program manager at the Ontario-based environmental charity Environmental Defence, one victory for water management advocates in Ontario is that local governments now have the discretion to review any permit applications for new or expanded proposals seeking to take more than 379,000 litres of water per day from nearby aquifers. This gives communities a form of veto power over projects that directly affect them, she said, and is a power many B.C. residents may be eager to have.

But this new system has also drawn criticism, particularly from Six Nations of the Grand River, for a lack of consent from Indigenous groups for water bottling on their territories. The production of plastic to bottle water is another concern, according to Woodhouse.

“In 2020, Wall Street started to trade water as a commodity just like gold,” said Woodhouse. As freshwater becomes scarce, she said, that water shouldn’t be commodified.

Further abroad, New Zealand’s approach to water management is very different, said Bryan Jenkins, president of the Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand. Decisions on water use are made on the basis of the potential for adverse environmental effects — but once that is determined, there are few other barriers for those looking to bottle, sell and export it.

“Water is owned by everyone, which effectively means it’s owned by no one,” Jenkins said. “It also means that once the water has been allocated … then the water is effectively free.” 

One waterway in New Zealand, however, has seen extraordinary measures taken to ensure its sustainability. The Whanganui River, on the country’s North Island, was given the same legal status as a person — allowing substantial concerns for its sustainability to factor into how it is managed.

“So if you’re looking at using the river in any shape or form — withdrawing water, discharging into water — then you have to consider the rights of the river,” Jenkins said.

The Indigenous Māori people of New Zealand also view water as something that has “mauri,” or life force. In addition to losing a sacred resource to New Zealanders, Jenkins said, exporting water can be viewed culturally as “losing the life force of the country.” 

This is a feeling that British Columbians, Fletcher and Curran, said they can relate to when they see water bottled and exported internationally — especially when there is a growing need for water in many local communities.

Although two years have passed since the Union of B.C. Municipalities voted in favour of a moratorium on water bottling, efforts to promote better water management within the province remain ongoing. Paydli is hopeful the province will take inspiration from Merville and other municipalities by acting on this moratorium.

“It’s really some low-lying fruit for the government,” she said.

“Water bottling really highlights how our watersheds are being mismanaged in B.C., and I think it’s something people can see very obviously that there’s things that need to change.” 

The Narwhal’s When in Drought series is funded by the Real Estate Foundation of BC, which administers the Healthy Watersheds Initiative, and the BC Freshwater Legacy Initiative, a project of the MakeWay Foundation. As per The Narwhal’s editorial independence policy, no foundation or outside organization has editorial input into our stories.

Updated Nov. 19, at 11:23 a.m. ET: this article was updated to correct a calculation error. The amount of water Hongyan Zhenghong International Investment Inc. is proposing to draw outside Clinton, B.C. is 864 cubic metres — or 864,000 litres. Therefore it’s as much water as 2,769 average British Columbians use, considering B.C. residents use an average of 312 litres per day, according to a 2016 study.

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