Criticism against Nestlé is picking up momentum once again as drought plagues B.C., wildfires rage in parts of the south coast, and residents are facing water restrictions.

Nestlé Waters Canada bottles roughly 265 million litres of water from B.C. every year.

Starting in 2016, it will have to pay $2.25 per million litres due to new regulations. Currently the company and other corporations take the water for free.

"It's simply scandalous that a company like Nestlé can take hundreds of millions of litres of groundwater at basically pennies at the same time as other B.C. residents are being asked to conserve water because it's in the middle of a drought," said Liz McDowell, campaign director of an online petition opposing the new regulations.

Nestlé Waters Canada defends its water use, noting it is not withdrawing water from rivers, lakes and streams that are currently affected by drought. Instead, the company draws its water from a groundwater aquifer, said corporate affairs director John Challinor.  

"We withdraw less than one per cent of the available groundwater in the Kawkawa Lake sub-watershed," he said in a written statement.

"Each year we publicly report on our withdrawals and monitoring data in an annual hydrologic monitoring report. These reports conclude that Nestlé Waters Canada has had no negative impact on the Kawkawa Lake sub-watershed in the 15 year history of our operations."

The Kawkawa Lake sub-watershed is near the District of Hope, where stage four water restrictions are prohibiting outdoor water activities and watering of lawns.

Petition gathering thousands of signatures

McDowell says the $2.25-rate is much lower than those set in other parts of Canada. Her petition, which began earlier in the year and has now gained more than 160,000 signatures, is urging the B.C. government to set a much higher water rate to encourage conservation.

"We're fortunate we do have groundwater reserves at the moment, but in California, after two, three, four drought years in a row, their groundwater reserves are actually running dry," she told On the Coast's Stephen Quinn.

"In B.C., right now we're in a position where we can actually stop and think responsibly and make sure we can preserve our groundwater for years to come."

McDowell says she will present the petition to Environment Minister Mary Polak once it reaches 200,000 signatures.

Government defends water fee

In an interview with Stephen Quinn on The Early Edition, Polak insisted that the province is not selling water but just charging a fee to industry for "accessing" the water for free.

She says raising fees could raise legal questions about who owns the water in the province. 

"That's a dangerous thing in these days when water is fought over around the world and we see what's happening in California," she says. "We will never sell that right of ownership. We will allow access but it is tightly controlled."

This has been the norm in B.C. for generations, Polak says. Water is not treated the same way as other resources, such as minerals or oil and gas, which have become a source of revenue for government. 

"What would happen if you start to generate a profit, start to generate revenue from water? What behaviour does that create in government?"

Nestlé not treated differently

A higher fee for industry would probably not affect Nestlé's ability to do business in B.C., she says, but would more likely affect dozens of smaller local bottled water companies that employ people and are "good clean businesses."

The way to control water use by industry is never going to be money, she says. Instead, she points to strong laws and regulations, such as the new Water Sustainability Act coming into effect in 2016, which regulates groundwater use and gives the provincial government the authority to step in with mandatory restrictions on all industry in cases of drought.

Nestlé is treated no differently than any other industrial operation in B.C., she says

"It's a straw man that is set up by folks who are, and I understand why, folks who are concerned about Nestlé as a company.

"If we want to talk about preserving water, it's about making sure we have strong laws to regulate how much anyone can use — whether they're Nestlé or anyone else — and ensuring that we never open to allowing multinational corporations to come in to British Columbia and actually buy ownership of some water.

Listen to the interview: Renewed criticism against Nestlé sparked by B.C. drought

Listen to the interview: Mary Polak