Kitchener-Waterloo·In Depth

Why one U of Guelph groundwater researcher says accepting money from Nestlé is OK

Nestlé Waters Canada donated $460,000 to a University of Guelph professor for groundwater research. G360 Centre for Applied Groundwater Research director Beth Parker says she can use that money to apply for more funding from the government.

Nestlé may see research and comment on it, but won’t have control, engineering prof Beth Parker says

Should groundwater researchers accept money from Nestlé Waters Canada? (Getty Images)

Groundwater researcher Beth Parker often relies on money from industry partners to help fund her research.

But a recent donation by Nestlé Waters to her research through the University of Guelph's G360 Centre for Applied Groundwater Research has raised some questions for the engineering professor.

"I've heard the concerns. I've been accepting money from industry partners my entire career," Parker said.

Nestlé has raised the ire of local water advocacy groups that say they need to stop pumping water and bottling it, shipping it away from southern Ontario.
Beth Parker is an engineering professor at the University of Guelph and director of the G360 Centre for Applied Groundwater Research. (G360 Centre for Applied Groundwater Research)

"I've often been questioned as to the logic or the rationale for how that supports fundamental research, as well as even applied research, in terms of the types of questions I'm interested in," Parker said. "There's nothing wrong with the questions and I actually welcome those questions in some ways, as long as the context is understood."

Parker noted Nestlé only provided the money and has no say over her work. Instead, the money is being used as "seed" funding so she can apply to the federal and provincial governments for grants to expand her research.

"The research proposal I would write is going to be reviewed by my peers, not by Nestlé. Nestlé will see it, they'll perhaps even provide feedback or input to it, but not exclusively, and certainly not controlling it, because that's not favourable to our outcome, which is to do work that advances the state of the science," Parker said.

'Generous donation'

Nestlé Waters Canada announced Aug. 5 that the company had donated $460,000 to Parker to conduct leading-edge groundwater research in Wellington County.

Township of Puslinch Mayor Dennis Lever said in a press release the "generous donation" will support important research.

In the same release, Andreanne Simard, natural resources manager for Nestlé Waters Canada, said the company "strives to add value to the community, not only through its operations. Water sustainability is Nestle's number one priority and we are proud to support this research program that will contribute to the protection of this vital resource."

Group: End water permit in Aberfoyle

Earlier this week, the Guelph-based group Wellington Water Watchers called on the province to phase out the company's permit to take water in Aberfoyle.

The company's permit expired July 31, but the renewal application was in early enough that the Ministry of the Environment will allow Nestle to continue to operate under that permit until a new one is granted.

Wellington Water Watchers chairman Mike Nagy said the province should give the company two years to stop taking water.
Nestlé Waters Canada recently announced it has purchased a property in centre Wellington, near Elora, Ont., but are awaiting approval from the province to perform a pump test of the well. The company has not received a permit to take water from the well, which is on the site of a former bottling facility. (CBC)

"It's not just Aberfoyle – it's the well in Hillsburgh, it's the one they've just purchased in centre Wellington near Elora. Now, they have three permits in their hands which would give them over six-and-a-half million litres a day if they're granted a permit in Elora," Nagy told CBC KW's The Morning Edition Tuesday.

He said the ministry has not yet posted the Aberfoyle renewal application for public discussion and there have been other "unprecedented" delays.

"We know that there's technical information that's showing, with the monitoring data that we insisted be put in place years ago in Aberfoyle, there is drawdown in the area," he said.

Other reports have shown problems in creeks in the area, he said.

"The lightbulb has really come on in the public psyche. They're really realizing that this is a luxury I don't think that we ever could afford," Nagy said.

Water not a commodity

On Monday, the Central Student Association at the University of Guelph also issued a release saying it stands with those calling for Nestlé to stop extracting water.

I firmly believe that it's a good sign that people in this community are very passionate about water.- Beth Parker, director of G360 Centre for Applied Groundwater Research

The statement asked the provincial government not to renew Nestlé's permit and said, "water is a human right, not a commodity."

When asked whether the CSA saw an issue with a professor accepting money from the water giant, Zoey Ross, the CSA communications and corporate affairs commissioner, sent an emailed statement to CBC News.

"In January 2016, University of Guelph undergraduate students voted on a motion asking the University of Guelph to divest in companies involved in the sale of bottled water. As this is what our members have called for, it is our duty as the Central Student Association to reaffirm this mandate," Ross wrote.

Understand the aquifer

Parker said her research – which focuses on improving the monitoring systems of the Silurian dolostone aquifer that lies beneath the feet of Ontarians from Niagara Falls to Tobermory and is the water source for many municipalities – may actually reveal that Nestlé needs to stop drawing water in Aberfoyle.
Nestlé Waters Canada donated $460,000 to the University of Guelph's G360 Centre for Applied Groundwater Research in August. (Associated Press)

But her short-term goal is to just better understand the resource.

"At this point in time, I think we still have lots of water, but I'm not sure that we should be making decisions as if that is always going to be the case," Parker said.

"I think we're realizing that each decision that's made that impacts that aquifer can't be made in isolation anymore. We have to start thinking about the compounding effects or the interaction effects that may be facing us, if not today, perhaps even in the future."

Be concerned about water, says prof

Guelph in particular has a number of residents who are well-versed in groundwater research, Parker said.

"I firmly believe that it's a good sign that the people in this community are very passionate about water. It's unusual for me as a groundwater scientist to have many laypeople know much about what I do," she said.

But there is still a lot of information people are unaware of, she added.

"We're using water all over the place in our community in ways that I think people would be astonished to think about if they were able to see all the information put in front of them and I think that's what we need to start doing as a community," she said. "We should be concerned about our water resources and we should be passionate about it, and then we need to be informed."

Listen to Thursday's interview with Beth Parker: