Astronomers go bananas when they discover a planet that has evidence of water, because they then know that life is possible on that orb. With water life is possible: without water, the possibilities are severely limited.
With this in mind, I was both surprised and horrified when I recently learned of a proposal that involved removing water from our Island aquifer and selling it abroad. Let’s put aside for a moment all the persuasive arguments why bottled water in and of itself is a terrible idea (use of oil, carbon footprint, plastic waste, health concerns, shipping something really heavy across the planet that is available locally, etc. etc.) and focus on what this might mean to Islanders and the water upon which our lives, our economy, and all living things with which we share this beautiful place depend.
As the proposal has been presented, it falls within all the regulatory requirements, and has thus far been given tacit government approval. The company’s plan is to drill three wells, each with a MINIMUM capacity of 40 gallons per minute on this single property. But because the rate of removal of each individual well is less than 50 gallons a minute, no extraction permits are required. This is a glaring leak (pardon the pun) in provincial legislation that must be fixed. And further, because this project falls under water extraction, there is no mechanism in the Environmental Protection Act for the public to trigger a review. Anybody anywhere on PEI could set up a bottling facility in their basement and sell “Pure Island Water” (the trade name of the said company) to anyone who will buy it. And we’re not talking lemonade stand nickels and dimes here. The project as proposed would mean that Pure Island Water could extract – free of charge – water of retail value in the tens of millions of dollars per year. Their stated markets include China and Japan, where they hope that PEI’s reputation for pristine water will mean that they have a “premium product” (their words) to sell to thirsty (and affluent) foreigners. Having said that, they are being careful to drill down much deeper than most domestic wells, way down to the ancient, so-called fossil water, to ensure that the water they extract is not contaminated with nitrates. What was that about pristine Island water?
Immediate neighbours of the proposed facility are concerned about the impact on their own wells and local watershed, not to mention a new factory in their currently peaceful rural district. It is yet one more example of the vulnerability of unincorporated rural areas to development that might not be compatible with surrounding land uses, and certainly not compatible with the will of the neighbourhood. (A poll of residents at a community meeting on Monday evening revealed almost complete disapproval of the project from the almost 50 people present.) There was an opportunity here for the proponents to proactively engage the community and work together, sharing information and addressing concerns, but instead it was as if they tried to slip this by unnoticed. This is exactly how NOT to create good-will and community buy-in.
But the implications of this proposal are Island-wide. With the drafting of a water act well under way, all Islanders should be deeply concerned about the precedent giving a license to such a facility provides for future entrepreneurs looking to extract our pristine Island waters and turn the sensitive resource into a big chunk of cash. It is the first step in a new direction that commodifies an invaluable public good. There is no province-wide upper limit on how much can be exploited by keen business-people eager to squeeze out every available drop of pure Island waters. We need to get the rules right before we consider this, otherwise it will be extremely difficult, not to mention expensive to turn off the tap and shut down an existing industry. The granting of a license must be delayed until the water act is in place, and any new protections contained within it brought into force.
On PEI we rely entirely on groundwater, and unlike many other places, we don’t have a lot of wiggle room should something interfere with our supply. In an age of heightened environmental awareness and acceptance of climate change, many places are banning the use of bottled water and its extraction for that use from groundwater. Why on Earth at this time is PEI getting into this dubious business? And one more fundamental question – is this in the public interest?
With other uses of water, there is an apparent benefit, and a natural limit to how much is needed and taken: just enough to keep golf course greens green; only what is required to maintain crop health; sufficient to create a base of snow for the ski hill, for example. But with water extraction for export, no self-imposed limits exist: greed knows no bounds. And therein lies the real peril of this. PEI’s water is vulnerable and unprotected, and business doctrines celebrate and promote growth and profiteering. It is a dangerous combination, and there may not be much time to act before our children’s future is bottled and shipped off in shiny plastic bottles, 80% of which will end up – perhaps like our Island itself – tossed away thoughtlessly.
For more on this issue, see our press release: Bevan-Baker calls for halt to water export project.