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Bottled water giant Nestlé has outbid a southwestern Ontario community for the purchase of a well in the area, prompting the mayor to call for more local control.

Nestlé outbids Ontario community on well purchase

Friday, September 23, 2016, 8:28 PM - Bottled water giant Nestlé has outbid a small Ontario community for the purchase of a well in the area, prompting the mayor to call for more local control.

The Township of Central Wellington, which includes Elora and Fergus, jumped at the chance to put in a bid on a well at Middlebrook, on which Nestlé had earlier made a conditional offer.

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"The reason behind it, was we really wanted to make sure that we guaranteed control of our water source for our municipality," the township's mayor, Kelly Linton, told The Weather Network Friday.

Linton said Nestlé, which had right of first refusal, was able to match the township's offer, placing the well out of reach. Nestlé told the Canadian Press the Middlebrook well is to be a "supplemental well for future business growth," as well as a backup for its facility in Aberfoyle.

Linton says the township is looking ahead to planning future growth, and wanted the well to ensure its future supply. It is now exploring the option of drilling a new well.

"We’re facing some significant growth in Centre Wellington, and we want to be sure that any kind of water taking that’s outside of the municipal water taking, is not going to impact our ability, in 40 years time, to look after our community," Linton says.

Nestlé is subject to regulations and permitting regimes governing how much water it can take from a well, which the Ontario government says includes environmental and local concerns. Communities like Centre Wellington have some consultative influence, and Linton says township officials have already made their concerns known to the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC). The mayor notes Nestlé has not yet been given a pump test permit, suggesting the ministry is taking the community's concerns seriously. 

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But Linton says having actual local control over the well would have been ideal.

"It kind of leaves the municipality on the outside looking in," he says. "Purchasing the property changes the equation, because then we would have control, and that’s really what we were looking for."

Call for more local planning control

Linton says he'd like to see more control by municipalities over water planning and other levers of growth that currently are overseen by the province.

"We’re less and less able to control our own destiny in a lot of areas ... and we really only have an opportunity to comment," Linton said, adding it's a frustration shared by other municipalities. "It feels like, more and more, the elected councils of these municipalities have a lot less to say in what their communities are going to be like in the future, and most of that is being dictated by the province right now."

Nestlé, for its part, says it will only apply for a water-taking permit if its pump test, which has not yet been approved by the ministry, shows there would be no negative impact on from any operations there. In that case, it would also be accompanied by "a comprehensive hydrogeological study and a corporate business plan."

Nestlé spokesman Cédric Focking Schneider told The Weather Network water security in nearby communities is one of the company's first concerns.

"We have always stated that sustainability is at the heart of our operations," he said. "Data and science drives Nestlé Waters’ decision making and we will reserve any decision on drawing from any source until a thorough test has been conducted to ensure there is no negative impact on the watershed and surrounding ecosystem."

Schneider added that when the Grand River Conservation Authority, which covers the area, declared a level 2 drought in the watershed in August, the company committed to reducing its maximum withdrawals in Aberfoyle by 20 per cent.

"We have been operating at a reduced rate ever since as we are firmly committed to ensuring long-term water sustainability for all water users in the community," he said.

When it comes to future water-taking, MOECC spokesman Gary Wheeler says the ministry evaluates each permit on a case-by-case basis "to ensure that the proposed water-taking would not interfere with existing water users and uses, which includes nearby municipalities, private wells and the surrounding environment." 

"The ministry also issues water-taking permits to municipalities to account for their planned future needs and will consider these needs when evaluating any new water taking proposals," Wheeler says.

Water backlash 

Water taking by bottled water companies in Ontario has been under scrutiny since the Canadian Press reported last month that Ontario only charges $3.71 per million litres, as opposed to Quebec, where the news service says the rate is $70 per million. Public concerns were also exacerbated by Ontario's drought this past summer.

Premier Kathleen Wynne tasked Environment Minister Glen Murray to take a look at the rules governing bottled water companies' access to Ontario's water.  review the rules for bottled water companies. On Friday, the Canadian Press reported Wynne would look to safeguard communities' water requirements.

"As we look at the water bottling industry, that has to be a question because we’re talking about what we could argue is our most precious resource,” she said this week. "There is much pressure on our water, so as we have this discussion about our water, the status of and the treatment of water bottling companies, that needs to be taken into consideration."

ADDITIONAL SOURCES: Canadian Press 1 | Canadian Press 2

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