Residents of a southern Ontario town are worried Nestlé Water Canada's plan to pump up to 1.6 million litres of water per day from a nearby aquifer could leave them high and dry.
Nestlé Waters Canada, a subsidiary of the transnational Nestlé company, has conditionally bought an existing well near Elora, Ont. — a small town on the Grand River located about 115 kilometres west of Toronto — that taps into a major aquifer, or underground layer of water.
The company hopes to eventually pump water from the aquifer and sell it in the Canadian market, where some 2.4 billion litres of bottled water are sold each year, often at prices similar to gasoline.
The company's plan to operate the well still needs approval from Ontario's Ministry of Environment, but at a recent meeting Elora residents voiced their outrage and disbelief that the province might allow it.
"This is huge money. Water is you know … I always call it the new gold," said Mike Nagy, one of around 4,000 people who live in Elora.
"Water is actually the commons. It's actually called the public commons. It belongs to the people of Ontario."
Residents in the area rely on well water for both residential and agricultural use.
Nestlé hopes to start testing the aquifer as soon as the province gives it the green light. The company has also committed to monitoring about 24 wells belonging to locals as it conducts water testing to make sure there's enough supply available for everyone.
Lindsay Bolger, who lives about three kilometres from the proposed site, said she's worried about the plan, because well levels already fluctuate in the area.
"I'd like to know my well level now and how this is going to affect it," Bolger said.
"My neighbour's well has gone dry."
Bolger said the company hasn't contacted her directly and should be doing more to keep residents informed about its operation.
"It doesn't seem very transparent. It's very frustrating," she said, adding that only the engineering firm doing the testing has been in touch with her.
Nestlé sees 'great potential' in well
The well in question is located on Middlebrook Road, and up until today had a permit from the province to pump 1.6 million litres of water, though the company that operated it never took took that much.
Andreanne Simard, Nestle's natural resources manager, said the project is still in its early stages and that the company is doing its best to keep the community in the loop when it comes to its operations.
"I totally understand their concern. That's our concern as well. That's why we want to conduct this aquifer test," Simard said.
"We see great potential here. But if something were to happen it's obviously our responsibility to rectify the situation," Simard said, adding she thinks a problem is unlikely.
The company, which employs about 150 people at its production facility in Aberfoyle, Ont., already operates two other wells in southern Ontario, which Simard said have operated in a "sustainable fashion" for over 15 years.
Province aware of town's concerns
Elora Mayor Kelly Linton said the community has already sent its concerns to Environment Minister Glen Murray.
"The main thing that I'm concerned about is that we use a science-based approach and we make sure that all of the testing that's done answers all of the questions that we have about the long-term sustainability of our water," Linton said.
There are other concerns, too, about the strain increased truck traffic will put on local roads.
Ontario's Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, meanwhile, pointed out that the company has only applied for a short-term water-taking permit for pumping tests at this time.
"The testing is for water quality and quantity purposes and is part of Nestlé's assessment to potentially seek a backup water supply," said spokesperson Lindsay Davidson.
"The proposal is for a pumping test only; it would not be used for water bottling."
Those assurances haven't allayed the fears of local residents like Carol Williams, who think this is the first step toward Nestlé sucking the area dry.
"We all share water. We don't mind sharing it," Williams said.
"But when a great big corporation comes in and wants to take it away … that's what's somewhat frightening — because we have no control over it."
The province is set to decide on Nestlé's application in mid-November.