Ontario’s environmental watchdog says food and beverage manufacturers should pay more for water used in processing.
Acting environmental commissioner Ellen Schwartzel says CPG companies, as well as farmers and heavy industry, are getting a “free ride” for water rights in the province.
The province recovers only 1.2% of the $16.2 million it spends each year on water quantity management programs.
``Not only do most industries get a total free ride, the few that do pay are charged only $3.71 for every million litres of water they take,'' said Schwartzel. ``That works out to less than $10 for enough water to fill an Olympic-size pool.''
Industries that face the small charge include bottled water producers, beverage manufacturers, fruit and vegetable canning or pickling facilities, ready-mix concrete producers, pesticide, fertilizer and other agriculture chemical manufacturers or inorganic chemical manufacturers.
Schwartzel said she’s frustrated that Ontario has made no progress recovering its management costs for water, despite years of reports, recommendations and political promises.
``We're really eager to see this move forward,'' Schwartzel said as she released her annual report. ``Other provinces are likely ahead of us on this, so we really need to move on it.''
The Ministry of the Environment needs to be more open when it issues water-taking permits because only one-quarter of them get posted on its website for public comment, added Schwartzel.
``Permits for municipal or agricultural uses, or ones that last for less than a year, are never shared with the public, and many of these are for high-risk uses,'' she said.
Environment Minister Glen Murray said he was preparing a plan to recover more of the water management costs, but warned the issue is not black-and-white.
Large industrial users of water are often heavy polluters, and will face additional costs when the government introduces a cap-and-trade system next spring.
``You don't want to go forward precipitously and hit a company with the polluter-pay principle on carbon dioxide and carbon pollution at the same time you're dealing with fees for water,'' said Murray.
The environment minister suggested bottled water companies could face a jump in fees because the government will look at whether or not water taken is returned or permanently removed from the water table.
``Some of our larger industrial users that produce things treat that water and they return it back to the aquifer,'' said Murray. ``If you're taking water and putting it in plastic bottles and selling it back at almost the price of gasoline, that water is not coming back.''
Murray’s comments come as residents in the small town of Elora, Ont. raised concerns over a plan by Nestle Waters Canada to pump up to 1.6 million litres of water per day from a local aquifer for its water bottling operation in the nearby town of Aberfoyle.
The company's plan still needs approval from Ontario's environment ministry. However, Elora residents expressed their opposition at a public meeting last week.
"This is huge money. Water is you know … I always call it the new gold," Elora resident Mike Nagy said at the meeting, according to a CBC report. "Water is actually…called the public commons. It belongs to the people of Ontario."
Not everyone agrees users should pay more.
The Ontario Federation of Agriculture said farmers use the latest technology to make sure they do not waste water, and pointed out that most of the rainwater they do use on crops is filtered and purified by the soil and returned to rivers, lakes and aquifers.
``In most of the cases, Ontario agriculture is irrigated by God, so I'm not too interested in paying that bill,'' said OFA president Don McCabe.