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Donna McCaw stands on a footbridge that crosses the Grand River in Elora, Ont. on Nov 25 2015. McCaw is a member of a group that is challenging Nestlé Waters Canada's proposal to buy a local property and draw water from the aquifer below it to truck off site and sold as bottled water.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Environmentalists are urging the Ontario government against renewing one of Nestlé's water-taking permits in a southwestern Ontario town, saying "water should be for life, not for profit."

Wellington Water Watchers says the permit for Nestlé Waters in Aberfoyle, Ont., expired on July 31, but the company has been allowed to keep extracting water from a local well even in the midst of a severe drought.

The group says the Ministry of Environment did not post Nestlé's renewal application for the usual 30 days of public comment, and instead granted the company an automatic extension without consulting people who live in the area.

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Related: Water fight: Nestlé meets resistance in small-town Ontario

But the ministry says a water-taking permit remains in force if a renewal application is made at least 90 days before it expires, and it plans to post Nestlé's application for comment once the supporting documents have been reviewed.

Nestlé Waters Canada says it's committed to "a continued engagement with the community" while it waits for the decision on its renewal application in Aberfoyle, where it operates a water-bottling plant.

"The continuation of this permit allows for thorough public consultation on the Ontario Environmental Registry, and provides (the ministry) time to conduct, review and report on the public commentary before a decision on the permit renewal application is made," the company said in a statement.

Related: The Globe examines the future of our most critical resource - water

Documents on a ministry website show Nestlé Canada has three permits to take up to 8.3 million litres of water every day for bottling, while Nestlé Waters Canada — a division of Nestlé Canada — has a half dozen Ontario permits allowing it to take an additional 12 million litres a day.

Other bottled water companies with large water-taking permits in Ontario include Gold Mountain Springs at 6.1 million litres a day, Gott Enterprises at 5.8 million litres and St. Joseph Natural Spring Water at 5.5 million litres.

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Ontario charges companies just $3.71 for every million litres of water, after they pay a permit fee of $750 for low- or medium-risk water takings, or $3,000 for those considered a high risk to cause an adverse environmental impact.

Former environmental commissioner Ellen Schwartzel took the Liberals to task in her annual report for not acting on recommendations to raise the amount it charges to take large amounts of water, which she called " a drop in the bucket."

Schwartzel pointed out even the ministry conceded that the $3.71 per-million-litre charge recovers only about 1.2 per cent of the government's total water-quantity management costs

The ministry lists about 6,000 water-taking permits on its website, which can be difficult to navigate, with multiple permits issued to many companies, often for similar time periods but with different expiry dates. An interactive online map that shows all of the permit locations is a sea of overlapping blue dots in the southern half of Ontario.

The permits allow municipalities, mining companies and golf courses — in addition to the water-bottlers — to take a total of 1.4 trillion litres out of Ontario's surface and ground water supplies every day.

The commercial water-taking permits can be valid for up to 10 years, even longer in some cases, and can allow the removal of several million litres a day. The Ministry of Environment has issued multiple water-taking permits for some rivers.

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Farmers don't pay fees to take water for agricultural purposes — they take less than 0.5 per cent of water removed — and their exemption does not apply to food processing, beverage manufacturing, wine-making or water-bottling.

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