A showdown between water advocates and politicians is expected Monday night in Guelph, Ont., over the divisive issue of Nestlé Waters Canada seeking renewal of a water-taking permit for its bottling plant in nearby Aberfoyle.
The permit has become a flashpoint in a battle between environmentalists, community leaders and corporate interests, after it was revealed that the province only charges bottled water companies $3.71 per million litres of water. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has said she plans to ask the province's environment minister to review permit conditions for all bottlers of water.
The issue is especially crucial to Guelph, which is the largest city in Canada that relies solely on groundwater for its water supply. The water being taken in Aberfoyle is from the same aquifer that feeds Guelph's supply.
Water advocates criticized the province for continuing to allow Nestlé to draw water this summer in the middle of a drought, and feared the water-taking could deplete the aquifer Guelph relies on.
The province is currently reviewing Nestlé's water-taking permit, which expired on July 31.
Opponents of Nestlé have planned a rally Monday night before a Guelph city council meeting to support a motion that will be introduced at the meeting by Coun. James Gordon. Gordon says if the motion is approved, the city will ask the province to not renew Nestlé's water-taking permit.
Aberfoyle is located just south of Guelph and approximately 85 km west of downtown Toronto.
People care deeply
Even though the bottling facility is not within the city's limits, Gordon said people care deeply about the issue.
'There are some politicians that say it's not our business and I think in Guelph, they're saying, 'Yeah, that's why we elected you. We think this is your business.' - James Gordon, Guelph councillor
"A lot of people in this city are concerned that, even though a report might show that the water is still coming out of the taps now, we're fine, there's so much evidence with recent drought conditions, climate change events, plus the mandate of the Places to Grow Act that we've been given as a city by the province to increase by 46 per cent our population by 2041, we know we're going to be needing more water, we know we can't get it any other way than our groundwater," Gordon told CBC News.
Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie has been accused by some of trying to curb debate on the issue.
On his blog last week, Guthrie said he would not support Gordon's motion and would instead like to wait until a staff report on the issue is ready. That report is due in November.
Guthrie said it comes down to the rules of how council operates.
"There is no, kind of, rogue mayor or hidden agenda here from the evil mayor that's trying to stop anything. I am open for any debate on any issue, I just think there's a right time and place for it and all I'm asking is that right time and right place happen,"Guthrie said.
But Gordon, the co-founder of the group Wellington Water Watchers, argues the debate can't wait.
Guelph depends on groundwater
"This community has a great awareness of protecting that resource, knowing we would be nowhere without it," he said.
"I think people, to their credit, are saying 'Wait a minute, what more important issue is there than this and how can we not show that social responsibility?'" he said. "There are some politicians that say it's not our business and I think in Guelph, they're saying, 'Yeah, that's why we elected you. We think this is your business.'"
Maude Barlow, the head of the Council of Canadians, said Guelph residents understand the impact water-taking could have on their future.
She said if Nestlé gets approval to pump water from a new well it purchased in Elora, Ont., in August, it could cripple nearby communities.
Her group has called on people to boycott the company.
"If Nestlé gets the next permit fulfilled, they're going to be taking over six million litres of water a day from the Grand River watershed — a watershed, by the way, where there are 11,000 First Nations people without running water. The politicians just aren't listening, they're not acting fast enough, so we've called for a boycott and we're going to take it into our own hands," she said.
"[Nestlé] should be allowed no more expansion, no more approvals. I think what we need to hear now and [Premier] Kathleen Wynne has just said that she's going to look at the whole situation: Are we charging enough money for raw water in Ontario? Absolutely not, $3.71 for a million litres is crazy."
Guthrie has said in the past that Nestlé's water-taking in Aberfoyle "has no effect" on Guelph's water, but Barlow said that's untrue.
"He just wishes it will go away," she said. "Unfortunately, there are politicians who don't see the big picture and don't realize the crisis we're in."