The proposed moratorium would prohibit any new or increased use of groundwater in Ontario for water bottling until January 1, 2019. This would allow time for the Ministry to undertake a comprehensive look at our current understanding of Ontario’s groundwater resources and the rules that govern water bottling facilities that take groundwater. This will help enhance water security in Ontario, by ensuring the wise use and management of groundwater in the face of climate change and increasing demand due to population growth.
Water is vital to the health and integrity of our ecosystems and communities. Drought conditions in some areas of Ontario this summer, projected increases in population and associated water needs, and anticipated impacts of climate change have intensified concerns related to water security in Ontario, particularly among communities that depend on groundwater. These concerns have prompted the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change to re-examine our current approach to managing water takings in the province, particularly the taking of groundwater for water bottling.
Ontario industries use water for many different purposes and water bottling represents a small portion of total groundwater use in Ontario. However, unlike other industries, manufacturers of bottled spring or mineral water incorporate most of the groundwater they withdraw into their products – very little is returned within the local watershed from where it was taken. Further, in most Ontario communities there is clean, safe and reliable water available from municipal drinking water systems. Filling reusable containers with municipal water offers a convenient alternative to buying bottled water in single-use plastic or glass containers.
Groundwater is a critical component of the Ontario’s water system and the government is committed to its long-term protection and conservation. In the past several years Source Protection Committees have undertaken water budget studies that are beginning to shed light on where and under what conditions groundwater resources may be stressed. These studies have identified areas where groundwater resources are already at risk, and areas where history shows that sources of water are vulnerable to drought. However, the amount of groundwater reserves available and their rates of replenishment within Ontario communities dependent on them are not fully understood. For example, the relationship between climate change and groundwater in Ontario is complex and limited research has been undertaken to understand the vulnerabilities of groundwater to climate change in Ontario. Changes in the frequency and duration of drought conditions and extreme weather events are anticipated and we do not yet understand their combined impact on our water resources. We also need to improve our understanding of the cumulative impact of water takings on groundwater and how the demands for groundwater are expected to change as Ontario’s communities grow and our climate changes.
In summary, more information is needed to better understand groundwater supplies in Ontario and how groundwater may respond to future changes in climate and to increases in demand for various uses.
In Ontario, water takings are governed by the Ontario Water Resources Act. Section 34.1 of the Act requires anyone taking more than 50,000 litres of water in a day, with some exceptions (e.g., domestic purposes, watering of livestock or poultry, and firefighting), to obtain a Permit to Take Water. The Water Taking and Transfer Regulation (Ontario Regulation 387/04) under the Act sets out rules the Ministry must follow when considering applications for water taking permits, including a framework for assessing the impacts of proposed groundwater takings on other water uses, including the environment.
The public has expressed significant concern about the impact that water bottling operations are having on groundwater supplies and the Ministry’s ability to effectively monitor and regulate these facilities. More broadly, there is a growing interest among Ontarians about the priority of uses and users of water in the province and about our current water management framework, particularly in light of uncertainties about future water availability and the need to account for situations where there are readily available alternatives to the water use, such as tap water.
In light of these concerns and given the uncertainties associated with the impacts of climate change and future demand on Ontario’s groundwater supplies, the Ministry needs to ensure that the rules governing water takings are adequate to protect and conserve our groundwater for future generations. Before considering permits for any new or increased water takings for water bottling facilities in Ontario, we want to improve our water resource information and to assess our existing water management tools.
Actions Planned During the Moratorium
While the proposed moratorium is in place, the Ministry will undertake work related to groundwater and its use for water bottling purposes within the context of overall water management in Ontario. This work will include a number of interrelated initiatives, such as:
- Examining water pricing and other tools – The Ministry will examine a range of pricing mechanisms that could be used to further protect and conserve water. These proposed options for water pricing would be posted for public comment. Other tools would also be explored to help respond to concerns related to broader environmental, economic, and social impacts of water bottling operations in Ontario.
- Reviewing water taking rules – The Ministry will review the existing rules governing water takings in Ontario to determine if they are adequate to protect and conserve water for future generations. The review would cover the relevant elements of the regulatory and policy framework, including the areas designated in regulation as “high use watersheds” and the rules that apply in those areas. As part of the review, Ontario would consult the public on the need to prioritize water uses to guide future policy regarding management actions when water resources may be stressed. Another important element of the review will be to reflect on how water taking policies are currently being operationalized and whether program-level changes are needed. For example, the Ministry will develop new technical guidance outlining sector-specific science requirements for applications for groundwater takings for water bottling.
- Advancing knowledge of water resources – The Ministry will undertake additional research to improve understanding of groundwater in Ontario, including consideration of how future climate change and population growth may impact groundwater supplies. By building on water budgets produced as part of the source protection program under the Clean Water Act, and by undertaking complementary research, the ministry would take a closer look at how demands for water are expected to change as Ontario’s communities grow and how our supplies can meet this demand as the climate changes. To better manage water takings, the hydrogeology of water resources throughout the province needs to be understood at a local scale where groundwater resources may be subject to stress.
All of these initiatives would be undertaken in consultation with stakeholders and the public, and through engagement with Indigenous communities. The Ministry would seek input on priorities and potential policy approaches for enhancing groundwater protection and the management of water takings in the province and on any specific proposed changes to how water is managed and priced before they are put in place.
Together, these actions – (1) imposing a prohibition on taking groundwater for new and expanded water bottling, (2) applying new rules for existing bottling facilities, (3) examining new options on water pricing, and (4) generating new water resource information – will protect and conserve water, especially groundwater, in the province for future generations.