Bottled water. A\J Alternatives Journal. Photo © amstockphoto \ Fotolia.com

A community in Ontario’s heartland is at the centre of a David vs. Goliath legal fight to protect its water. Since 1988, Nestlé has been withdrawing water from a deep aquifer well in Hillsburgh, Wellington County, Ontario. Currently the company pays only $3.71 for every million litres that it removes from the watershed. Last September, the Ontario Ministry of Environment renewed Nestlé’s permit for another five years, but set out a mandatory restriction requiring Nestlé to reduce its water takings by 20 per cent during times of moderate drought.

In an appeal to the Environmental Review Tribunal, Nestlé requested that these restrictions be removed. The Council of Canadians and Wellington Water Watchers – with legal representation from Ecojustice – are defending the public interest in Nestlé’s appeal. We argue that the appeal is inconsistent with the public trust and must be rejected. The public trust doctrine holds that important common resources – such as water and air – are held by government on behalf of the public, and must be managed for the benefit of current and future generations. If successful, this case could set a crucial precedent for recognizing water as a public trust and granting communities priority rights to control their water and how it is used.

Yet in a stunning move, the ministry agreed to settle the appeal with Nestlé and the two have jointly asked the tribunal to approve a new agreement. This would effectively remove drought-based restrictions on pumping at Nestlé’s well in Hillsburgh. This begs the question: why, when residents and farmers are being asked to cut back on their water use, is the government of Ontario siding with a water-hungry transnational water corporation?

We believe the settlement puts Nestlé’s profit-making interests before the water rights of the people of Wellington County. Last summer, Wellington County farmers, livestock producers and residents were seriously impacted when they experienced the worst drought in more than a decade. This serves as a harsh reminder that we cannot take our water supply for granted, and further underscores the need for the Ontario government to prioritize community rights to water above a private company’s thirst for profit.

The planet is running out of clean freshwater and there is a mighty contest between those who would control dwindling supplies for personal profit and those who insist water is a common heritage that must be fiercely protected and more equitably shared. In many ways, this effort to protect an important aquifer in a small Ontario community is a microcosm of the global fight against corporate ownership of water. Water is a shared public resource that belongs to all. Nestlé should be sent packing.

Will this community regain control of its water? Learn more or get involved with wellingtonwaterwatchers.ca and canadians.org.

Maude Barlow is a Canadian author and National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians. She is also the co-founder of the Blue Planet Project, which works internationally for the human right to water.

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