Late last week I posted my thoughts on Aquifers, Drought and the Nestlé water bottling plant in Hope and the response has been overwhelming. My Twitter and Facebook feeds exploded and I was even interviewed by a local radio station CKNW (a recording of the interview is provided here) on the topic. As part of the furor I received a lot of interesting information and was the target of a lot of misinformation, the most prominent of which I will address in this blog post:
Conflicts of Interest:
Let’s start with the easiest one first. I am not in the pay of Nestlé, no one in my family earns any income of any sort from Nestlé and I have received absolutely no compensation for my post or my media appearance. The suggestion that I am a “shill” or “in the pay of Nestlé” is an expected response to my blog postings. So expected that I have previously addressed the “shill gambit” in a post titled “On “Bullies”, “shills” and using labels to shut down legitimate debate”. My graduate research was on the use of scientific data in environmental decision-making and while I currently work in the field of contaminated sites I retain a personal interest in my earlier field of research. When I see an environmental debate being overwhelmed by bad or incomplete data I have a tendency to step in. This case meets that bill admirably.
More on Aquifers:
The biggest bit of misinformation I have had repeated back to me again and again is how the use of water in Hope will somehow effect the rest of us or future generations. In my earlier introduction to aquifers I pointed out that aquifers come in two major types: confined and unconfined aquifers. A confined aquifer is water trapped in permeable rock or porous materials (like gravels and sands) that is confined on both the top and the bottom by an impermeable layer (typically either bedrock or very tight layers of silts and clays). Confined aquifers are typically under pressure (generally artesian in nature) and are sometimes referred to as “fossil waters” as they typically represent waters that have taken generations to build up and once depleted can take generations to replenish. The use of these fossil waters is an ongoing concern and has led to tremendous changes in groundwater conditions in much of the Southern U.S. The use of these fossil waters must be monitored in the same way that other non-renewable resources must be monitored because once extracted these waters will not be readily replaced in our lifetimes. Unconfined aquifers on the other hand are made up of similar porous materials but are not confined vertically. They are in contact with the surface via the unsaturated zone which goes up to the ground surface. The groundwater surface in an unconfined aquifer is often called a water table and the water table can rise and fall depending on how much water is added via precipitation, or the migration from surface water bodies, and how much is drawn off by humans or runs off, also via surface water bodies like lakes , rivers and streams.
The Lower Mainland is dominated by unconfined aquifers which are used by the inhabitants of the Fraser Valley including much of Langley, Abbotsford, Chilliwack and Hope. The important thing to understand about these aquifers is that they are mostly hydraulically isolated from each other. You can think of these aquifers like a bunch of underground swimming pools full of sand/gravel. Take the water from one and you don’t affect its neighbours. Each aquifer has its own source (a watershed) and must be treated as an individual entity. The aquifer used by Nestlé is a particular type that is hydraulically connected both to a watershed and to a lake: Kawkawa Lake. This is important because unlike many aquifers in the region, as water is drawn from the Kawkawa aquifer (by Nestlé) the aquifer is refreshed by the Lake, and the corresponding watershed. Thus the condition of the aquifer can be inferred by the conditions in the Lake. As long as the Lake level remains relatively stable the aquifer can also be inferred to be relatively stable. The Kawkawa aquifer drains to the Fraser River via Sucker Creek and then the Coquihalla River. As long as Sucker Creek continues to flow then we know that the aquifer is not only doing well but has an excess of water. As I noted in my previous post, the amount of water extracted by Nestlé is equivalent to about 72 seconds worth of water flow from the Fraser River as it passes Hope. I cannot emphasize this enough: the operation of the Nestlé plant in Hope no way affects the larger water supply of the Fraser Valley or the even larger water supply of the Lower Mainland. If Nestlé stopped operating (and put its 75 employees out of work and stopped paying municipal taxes) would there be more water for the rest of us? Absolutely not. Kawkawa Lake drains its excess water into the Fraser River, which simply drains into the Strait of Georgia. Neither the Fraser River at Hope nor the Strait of Georgia are particularly short of water even in the driest of years.
The Water Sustainability Act:
As I mentioned briefly, the BC government is in the process of modernizing its regulatory environment for groundwater and the centerpiece of this process is the Water Sustainability Act which is intended to provide an improved and modernized regulatory control over our groundwater resources. The government has been in the process of rolling out the Act and its associated regulations and has been engaging stakeholders on a variety of topics. One of the big topics has been on water pricing. The emphasis of the water pricing regime continues to be on a user-pay principal where the water users pay for the management of the regulatory regime only. My understanding is that the intention is not to turn a profit but to pay for the process of regulating groundwater and ultimately for mapping and tracking our groundwater resource use. As I have written, tweeted and said on radio, the first step in regulating a resource is to understand its extent and capacity. Historically we as British Columbians have done a poor job at monitoring the use of our groundwater and the fact that the government is now taking the step of filling in our data gaps on the issue is a cause for congratulations and not condemnation. To my understanding British Columbia is leading the country in this regard and perhaps the naysayers should do a bit more research before going all partisan on this important non-partisan pursuit.
Commoditization of Groundwater:
The biggest complaint amongst both my friends and my detractors has been on the pricing of water. As I describe above, the government is talking to stakeholders about this topic but there is an important point that the purveyors of that petition demanding that “BC Charge a fair rate for the use of groundwater”. Ironically, the purveyors of the petition might end up getting exactly the opposite of what they want by charging for groundwater. Under the current regulatory regime, groundwater is not treated as a commodity. All users access groundwater for free. As I describe above, the planned pricing is for regulatory purposes and not for profits. As described by Judi Tyabji (and provided to me by Randy Rinaldo @RanRinBC) on her Facebook Page, the biggest protection our groundwater has in a North America dominated by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is the fact that we have not treated groundwater as a commodity. To the best of my knowledge, once you turn groundwater into a commodity you put it under NAFTA and instead of it being regulated by the government of British Columbia, it gets regulated under NAFTA. That means that foreign governments and businesses can sue to get control over access to these groundwater resources and can demand a payout if they are denied access. Right now the government can still regulate the use of groundwater. If we turn groundwater into a commodity by pricing it competitively we run the risk of losing that ability. They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Wouldn’t it be ironic if by signing that petition the petitioners actually managed to force control of our provincial resources to a foreign dominated trade commission or tribunal?
Author’s note: some people have disagreed with my interpretation of NAFTA but none have yet explained a technical basis for their disagreement. I welcome any opportunity to learn more about the topic and would welcome any corrections in the comments.