The provincial Environmental Review Tribunal agrees with environmental groups that a deal between the Ontario government and food giant Nestlé needs more public scrutiny.
In its written decision, the tribunal says removing conditions that would compell Nestle to cut back on its water take during droughts is not in the public interest.
"The Tribunal finds the proposed settlement and withdrawal are not consistent with the purpose and provisions of the OWRA (Ontario Water Resources Act) or with the public interest."
Mike Nagy with the environmental group Wellington Water Watchers is relieved.
"It speaks to the fact our concerns have been heard," he said. "We're quite pleased there will be a public dialogue on the issues."
It all started last year when the Swiss food giant applied to renew its licence for an underground well near Hillsburgh in Wellington County, west of Toronto.
Ontario's Ministry of the Environment gave Nestlé a new five-year term, but added two new conditions that meant the company would have to reduce its take of water during droughts. That made Nestlé the only permit holder in the watershed to face mandatory reductions.
The company appealed the permit to the Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal.
Before the tribunal could rule, Nestlé and the ministry reached an agreement and the two drought conditions were removed from the company's permit.
The Council of Canadians and Wellington Water Watchers launched their own appeal, arguing the ministry should stick with the plan to make the company cut back during droughts.
The group maintained the underground acquifer flows into the Grand and Credit watersheds that could be affected during severe dry spells.
The Ontario government and Nestlé Waters Canada say there's no connection between the surface and underground water.
But the Tribunal ruled that's a crucial point that needs further study.
"Without knowing where the water comes from, how fast it arrives, where it is going or how fast it gets there, it is difficult to assess the significance of drought conditions on the acquifer and of taking from the acquifer on drought conditions locally or elsewhere in Ontario."
It has ordered public environmental hearings where water experts could be asked to testify.
'Point of fairness'
Nestlé spokesman John Challinor said the issue for the company is about being the only water user facing mandatory restrictions.
"It came down to a point of fairness," he said. Nestlé has previously said it would follow mandatory restrictions if everyone else does too.
Challinor said the new hearings won't change much in the short term. Nestlé has a new five-year water permit to continue to take water for bottling.
The two new conditions were only for droughts.
"That situation may never happen in the life of the permit," he added.
No date has been set yet for the environmental hearings.