Environment Minister Glen Murray says Ontario water isn't being priced fairly and urges the public to 'help us write the new rules' as the province looks to revamp its decades-old regulations around commercial water use. 

His comments follow a proposed two-year freeze by the province that would prevent Ontario's bottled water companies from using groundwater for their bottling operations as the government looks to develop a new set of standards that would require the companies to scientifically prove their operations would not affect local water supplies. 

The freeze could go into effect later this year, but it wouldn't apply to bottled water companies that use a municipal drinking water system. 

The issue has been heightened after a summer with little to no rain in Ontario's heartland, one that's left fields parched, lawns yellowed and some tempers white-hot as Nestle Waters Canada continues to draw millions of litres of water daily from local aquifers at a fraction of a penny per bottle. 

"I don't think it reflects the value [of water]," Murray told The Morning Edition host Craig Norris in an interview on CBC K-W Tuesday. "I think we have to start looking at how much we commodify water and when it is being sold as a commodity commercially, it has to reflect that choice and that sale." 

Ontario water dirt cheap

Right now Ontario water is dirt cheap, so long as you don't use it to water your lawn. 

Nestle, like all commercial users, pays just $3.71 for each 1,000,000 litres of water it takes and, although it agreed to voluntarily reduce its water consumption during this summer's record drought, the company was under no legal requirement to do so. 

Compare that to the average homeowner in nearby Guelph, who, even in October, still risks a $130 fine for watering their lawn, as the city continues to impose the strictest water restrictions possible under its bylaws. 

Nestle protest

Protesters gather outside Guelph city hall in September at a rally aimed at pushing city politicians to pressure Queen's Park to halt Nestle's water-bottling operations in nearby Aberfoyle. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

The clear dichotomy between the water rights of people and companies is a growing source of frustration among environmentalists, who held a rally outside Guelph City hall last month demanding local representatives urge the province to yank Nestle's permit to privately bottle and sell what's seen as a public resource.

More local control, with a catch

"I want to look at expanding the role of source water protection of our conservation authorities and municipalities to better be able to manage regional resources," Murray said, acknowledging that dichotomy.  

"You have to understand we have a lot of national and international trade regulation on this, which makes it challenging for municipalities and for the province to make sure we're doing the right thing and doing it in a way that will make sure it will not be overturned legally." 

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Nestle Waters Canada is the biggest employer in Aberfoyle, with hundreds of employees who work for the company. (Getty Images)

Murray said the water situation in Wellington County this past summer will only become exacerbated, pointing to provincial climate change models projecting more frequent dry summers that will make water and food security "major issues" within the next decade.

'This is a major employer'

He also acknowledged that while change is coming, it will come slowly, noting Nestle Waters Canada employs hundreds of people and contributes significantly to the economy of Aberfoyle and surrounding towns. 

"This is a major employer," he said. "Any transition into a new system has to be sensitive to that." 

In the meantime, the province's bottled-water industry has essentially become bottled itself under a two-year moratorium that forbids companies from creating new or expanding existing operations while Ontario works out new rules. 

Murray encouraged people who are interested in the future of Ontario's water to get involved.

"We live in a democracy, this is your chance to help write policy for the government," he said. "Submit your proposals and help us write the new rules."