Throughout June and July I noticed a petition circulating saying something about our water resources and Nestlé bottling water. I don't buy bottled water, and I wasn't paying much attention until I saw a news story with the NDP environment critic saying that it wasn't right that Nestlé was receiving water "free" and that they should pay a "fair price."
Then I received an email from a group I support called SumofUs and became scared that it could be used to trigger a clause in NAFTA that is very dangerous.
The minute the B.C. government starts charging for water from aquifers for use based on volume, we can't turn off the taps. We have to continue to deliver the volume being purchased or we are in violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 between Canada, the U.S, and Mexico.
As cited by Steven Shrybman of West Coast Environmental Law, "water in its 'natural state' is not a tradable 'good' and therefore not subject to international trade rules." This includes rivers, lakes, and aquifers.
On Saturday afternoon I posted this statement to my Facebook page:
"I have to make a statement about the growing hysteria around B.C.'s laws on water, which terrifies me because the campaign is wrong. Do NOT demand that the province charge Nestlé money, unless you want to open the door to massive water sales in BC. Please read my full statement very carefully because water is more important than politics.
Context: I have been campaigning against bulk water exports since the late 1980s, arguing against the Free Trade Agreement, and later NAFTA, which defined water as a commodity eligible for export, and contained clauses locking us into sustained export levels regardless of our domestic need. Recent news stories alleging that the BC government is 'giving away' our water to Nestlé and stating that the government should be 'charging a fair price' for it are dangerous.
Currently, Nestle pays the same fees that everyone else pays for access to water. Nestle is on the record saying they will pay a fair price and in fact want the province to do an inventory of its fresh water.
Understand this as you sign the petition DEMANDING that the province charge Nestle for water: you are lobbying our government to turn our water into a commodity for sale. That's what you are doing when you post articles and petitions. You will make Nestle VERY happy if you succeed, because then we can NEVER turn off the taps due to the international trade deals in place.
Do NOT sign the petition do NOT ask that our water become a commodity. When Environment Minister Mary Polak says "We don't sell water. We charge administration fees for the management of that resource" she is trying to tell us this - we are NOT selling it. And that is the ONLY way we can protect it. By NOT selling it.
Honestly, this campaign terrifies me. Every headline I have read is misleading and intended to make you angry and lobby for something very bad. Please share."
As of Tuesday noon, the post had over 18,000 shares, and the petition had over 220,000 signatures.
On Monday afternoon, the B.C. government confirmed an interest in reviewing the fee rates, provided there was no sale of water.
The new Water Sustainability Act implements administrative fees for groundwater use, and these fees seemed to have started the debate and the petition to charge more money. However, once the money charged is above the government's cost, and it can be seen to be making money, the groundwater becomes a commodity -- and under the FTA and NAFTA we cannot turn off the taps, even if we are at a Level 4 drought situation.
This would mean that a farmer may watch her fields turn brown without irrigation, while right next door Nestlé could be pumping the aquifer dry. And, if there is no more water available to meet our trade obligations, Nestlé could sue the government for damages.
B.C.'s Environment Minister Mary Polak says the proposed charge is simply an access fee: "We will never sell that right of ownership. We will allow access but it is tightly controlled."
It appears that she's being very careful because she understands that charging too much leaves the government open to the claim that it has "sold" the water, and therefore water from our aquifers becomes a commodity.
Many people say they pay more for their water than what Nestlé is paying; however that is because they are paying their local government or water district for the cost of delivering the water. They are not paying for the water itself.
In addition, whatever rate that Nestle pays would have to be paid by any large entities accessing water, including wineries, breweries, farmers, grape growers, and orchardists, so we have to be very careful that we do not end up pricing water beyond what our farmers and food growers can pay.
The provincial administration in B.C. has protected us under these trade deals for decades and have to decide the fees based on cost. Perhaps if people are upset enough, we can demand that our international trade deals be renegotiated so that control of our water cannot be taken away.
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