Well water fears fuel calls to halt proposed bottling plant near B.C. village

Angie Kane knows how important well water is when you live in the heart of dry, rural B.C.

For 17 years, she lived on a ranch outside Clinton, a semi-desert village about 120 kilometres northwest of Kamloops. Many residents who live outside municipal boundaries draw water from aquifers.

For Kane, the arid climate always kept the importance of her water supply top of mind.

“That is the biggest concern, for anyone who has a well, is will it dry up? Or will it go away?” she told CBC News.

That same aquifer is where a water bottling company hopes to extract nearly a million litres of water daily, should its licence application be approved by the provincial government. It was filed in 2015 and remains under review.

“The community was in a big uproar,” recalled Kane, who is is the CEO of Secwepemcul’ecw Restoration and Stewardship Society (SRSS).

“They would be accessing ranchers’ well water, and that there might not be enough to support a water-bottling plant as well as support the community’s and rancher’s needs.”

CHZ was granted a development permit for a site near Clinton, but is still waiting on approval from the province to begin extracting groundwater for bottling. (Submitted by Greg Crookes)

The proposed water-bottling plant has raised concerns from the High Bar First Nation over the aquifer’s long-term sustainability, and has fuelled calls for a moratorium on groundwater bottling licences issued by the province.

Opponents say regulations need to be improved so new licences can only be granted once consent has been given from both Indigenous communities and local residents near the watershed.

“We’re feeling the impacts of climate change, and our hydrology and ecology has shifted fundamentally,” said Deborah Curran, executive director of the Environmental Law Centre (ELC) in Victoria.

After hearing from a growing number of communities in similar straits, the ELC has submitted a proposal to the province calling for the moratorium on any new bottling licences until a more collaborative licensing method is implemented. It also says water licences should only be granted for short terms up to five years, and wants the province to raise extraction fees.

The proposed water bottling site is just south of Clinton between two local lakes. (EHD Consulting Ltd. via Google Earth)

Bottling in B.C.

In B.C., water is governed by the Water Sustainability Act, legislation meant to ensure sustainable future use, according to the province.

While bulk water exports in large containers are prohibited in B.C., water bottling remains legal.

Under provincial rules, bottling companies are charged just $2.25 for every million litres extracted.

While dozens of licences are active, there are a handful of new applications under review, including one from Clinton Hongyan Zhenghong International Investment Inc. (CHZ), which aims to draw water from an aquifer just south of the municipality.

CBC News reached out to the CHZ president Lange Feng via the phone number attached to their licence application, but each call went directly to an automated message. A consulting engineer retained by CHZ for the project declined an interview.

Greg Crookes, a natural resource manager for the High Bar First Nation, says the community has been in regular talks with the province, each time strongly opposing the plant.

“If we say yes to extracting some water now, what’s that going to look like 10, 20, or 100 from now?” said Crookes. He says the area only gets about 28 centimetres of precipitation per year, the same figure included in Environment Canada’s precipitation records for the years 1981 to 2010.

“If they need water, go to the places where the water exists — don’t go to some of the driest places in B.C.,” he said. “The ranchers need the water, the First Nations need the water, the animals need the water.”

The Elephant Hill wildfire has chewed through 167,000 hectares of forest seen in this satellite image, according to the B.C. Wildfire Service. The fire burned through watersheds near the proposed Clinton water bottling plant. (NASA)

An independent study commissioned by SRSS noted that the water bottling company’s assessments relied on outdated modelling of the aquifer from 2007, and didn’t take into account changes to the landscape that could impact how much water is retained by the aquifer.

Kane says recent wildfires have had a major impact on the soil. In 2017, the Elephant Hill fire burned 1,920 square kilometres of land, including watersheds near the proposed bottling plant.

“The water does not have an opportunity to seep into the ground,” said Kane

“Given that the water can’t absorb, and we’re not seeing the level of vegetation there anymore to hold the water, how is [the aquifer] regenerating?”

Warming weather and drought conditions are also top of mind. This year, Clinton saw temperature records break as it was baked by a heatwave.

Province responds

The province says it’s still reviewing the Clinton bottling plant application and that its committed to consultations with First Nations.

Despite receiving the ELC proposal, it says it isn’t considering a moratorium on licences, but that it takes public concerns seriously.

It says future climate impacts on the landscape are among criteria considered during the licensing process.

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