Montreal

Worried about their water supply, Quebec towns want industry to pay up

Quebec has three per cent of the world's fresh water, but municipalities west of the island of Montreal are increasingly concerned about their supply. Officials want the next government to force industries to pay more for the water they use.

Fast-growing region of Vaudreuil-Soulanges concerned about depleted water table

A woman stands beside a sign showing water consumption
Geneviève Lachance, the mayor of Saint-Lazare, wants the provincial government to take steps to ensure her region's drinking water is safe. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Once a week, municipal workers in the town of Saint-Lazare, west of Montreal, adjust the arrow on signs indicating the level of water consumption.

For most of this summer, it's been pointed at "elevated." The goal of the signs posted around the municipality is to encourage residents to use less water.

"In the last few years, we had to go into a full watering ban mainly caused by the droughts that we've had and also because of the COVID, where a lot of people were home and using more water than usual," said Mayor Geneviève Lachance.

"We had to act to make sure that we're not not getting into these situations where we will have to restrict water usage."

Saint-Lazare is part of the regional county municipality (MRC) of Vaudreuil-Soulanges, which this summer adopted a motion calling on the Quebec government to disclose data on groundwater consumption.

The MRC argued it needs more information on the amount of water being used by industries — and the amount of water still available — to ensure sustainable development in one of the fastest-growing regions in the province.

Industries use water for 'almost free'

Quebec has three per cent of the world's fresh water, but municipalities in the southern part of the province are increasingly concerned about supply.

At this early stage of the election campaign, the Quebec Liberals have the most detailed platform plank on water, including a commitment to hike royalties on industrial water use by six times the current amount. 

In the final days of the legislative session last June, the CAQ tabled a bill that would hike what the government charges commercial water users, in what amounted to an early campaign promise.

The party said earlier this month it would use the new revenue to protect the province's water supply.

As it stands, the province charges pulp and paper mills, mines and aluminum smelters — the category of users that rely on huge amounts of water — $2.50 per million litres.

Another category, which includes bottled water companies, is charged $70 per million litres.

In total, the province brought in only $2.8 million in revenue last year from the consumption of 811 billion litres of water, according to budget documents.

The royalty rates in Quebec have not been increased since they were put into place in 2010.

Rivière-Beaudette Mayor Patrick Bousez, the prefect of Vaudreuil-Soulanges MRC, said he'd like that to change.

"All that we know is that they're getting that water for almost free," he said.

The rates in Quebec are far lower than in Ontario, which raised the rate charged to bottled water companies to more than $500 per million litres in 2017.

European countries also charge more. Denmark, for example, charges $10,000 per million litres. 

Roy Brouwer, the executive director of the Water Institute and a professor of economics at University of Waterloo, said Quebec and the rest of the country need to take greater care of their resource.

"Canada has this idea that there is an abundance of water, and of course, there is an abundance of water," he said. "But I think that's a misunderstanding. I actually think there is a threat of water insecurity because it's not just the quantity, it's also the quality."

Contamination, overuse are concerns

In Vaudreuil-Soulanges, 18 of 23 municipalities rely exclusively on groundwater — and the MRC wants to protect that water from contamination and overuse by industry.

Mont Rigaud, much of which is covered in forest, plays a crucial role in the region. 

Rain and melted snow seeps into the ground at the foot of the mountain, replenishing the supply of groundwater for residents in the surrounding area. 

A map of Vaudreuil-Soulanges showing its water supply.
(CBC News)

Bousez wants the government's assurance that the mountain will be preserved.

"Nearly 100,000 people are getting their water from underground, so we can't allow any mining exploration," he said.

Although no such projects are imminent, the MRC produced a 73-page report in 2019 concluding the region should prohibit future mining and gravel quarries, given its reliance on groundwater. 

Bousez said the CAQ government was not receptive to the MRC's demand to rezone the mountain area to ensure it is protected. He is hoping the next government makes doing so a priority.

'Water is an issue everywhere'

Vaudreuil-Soulanges isn't the only place in the province that wants more data on industrial water use.

Marc Bishai, a lawyer at the Quebec Environmental Law Centre (CQDE), is one of those pressing the province to force bottled water companies and other businesses to disclose how much water they take from the ground.

He said municipalities don't know how much water is being used, and whether it poses a threat to their supply.

"We would need to have access to this data to be able to crunch the numbers," he said. 

"When private corporations take large quantities of water and then refuse to let the public know how much, that's really an issue for the public and for municipalities."

A recent report by Natural Resources Canada raised concern that, while Quebec's drinking water is "generally of excellent quality," surface and groundwater could be affected by a reduction in flow rates due to climate change. 

"Such a situation would compound anthropogenic pressures such as industrialization, urbanization, agricultural activities, resort development and the absence or inadequacy of wastewater treatment systems," the report said.

A big barn looms over rolling farmland.
In Brome-Missiquoi, a regional county south of Montreal that is home to rolling hills and farmland, more than half the municipalities are struggling with water issues. (Louis-Marie Philidor/CBC)

In Vaudreuil-Dorion, just down the road from Saint-Lazare, construction is set to begin soon on a long-awaited new hospital.

The health-care institution is much-needed, said Saint-Lazare's mayor, but it, too, will require a stable supply of clean water.

"Water is an issue everywhere around the world, not just here in Saint-Lazare, the MRC, or even in Quebec," Lachance said. She wants to hear from all the parties on what she says is such a pressing issue.

"We see droughts and water shortages in Europe. We see it in China; we see it in California. So it should be a main topic of discussion during the election."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Benjamin Shingler is a reporter with CBC in Montreal. He specializes in health and social issues, and previously worked at The Canadian Press and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.

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