After years of controversy and months of debate, the province of Ontario took a strong stance with companies that bottle and sell its groundwater. As of August, water bottlers now have to pay $503.71 per million litres of groundwater taken, compared to the previous fee of $3.71.
While the move sends a signal to water-bottling companies, acknowledging that fees have historically been too low, many worry that the $500 increase is only a drop in the bucket compared to what's needed in order to protect Ontario's groundwater resources.
According to the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, the new fee is "expected to recover a significant portion of the province's costs of managing groundwater taken by water bottlers, including supporting scientific research, policies, outreach and compliance," says Ministry spokesperson Lindsay Davidson.
Ms. Davidson adds that this fee is among the highest for water bottling in any province in the country. "The province cannot charge more than the amount needed to recover these costs," she says.
The fee is expected to generate approximately $850,000 annually, and coincides with a freeze on any new or increased groundwater taken for the purpose of water bottling.
"During the moratorium, the Ministry is undertaking scientific research and a review of the rules governing water takings in Ontario to determine what changes may be needed to ensure long-term water protection," says Ms. Davidson. The Ministry will review the charge at least every five years and they may be adjusted in the future.
While the fee increase was intended to put an end to the debate over whether Ontario is properly managing its groundwater resources, many have suggested that the new policies don't go far enough.
The argument is that the $850,000 generated from the fee increase may be enough to regulate the water bottlers, but it is nowhere near the $16.2-million the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change spends each year on water management programs.
"In theory, what should they be collecting?" asks Ellen Schwartzel, deputy commissioner with the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, one of the province's environmental watchdogs. "If their own estimate of their operating costs are correct, they should be collecting around $16-million per year."
Ms. Schwartzel explains that the increased bottling fee only covers the small sliver of the budget that provides permits and regulates that one industry, but the cost of protecting Ontario's water resources is far greater. Not only do the new prices not reflect the true value of water, she says, but they also only extend to water bottlers, only one of the many heavy industrial groundwater users in the province.
Pricing can be a powerful tool in fostering innovation as well as better water use practices, says Ms. Schwartzel. Greater fees for products and services that require heavy groundwater use can encourage greater conservation.
Environmental Defence, Canada's largest environmental action organization, called the increased water-taking fees for bottled-water producers "good news" in a June press release, but also said that "more still needs to be done to address the issues that come with bottled water."
Ashley Wallis, the group's program manager for water, noted in the statement that in Ontario, about 1.5 billion bottles end up in landfills or littered in the environment annually. And pricing alone can't solve this problem.
"The province can address this by putting a deposit on plastic bottles similar to what's already in place for beer and liquor bottles," said Ms. Wallis in the statement.
Ms. Schwartzel points out that access to groundwater resources will only become more vital as the impacts of global warming continue to increase the scarcity of fresh water globally.
"We're going into a very different future, and we're not doing ourselves any favours by pretending that we have an infinite supply," she says.
She notes that Ontarians often think of themselves as having an embarrassment of riches when it comes to their fresh water supply.
"It's lulled us into complacency, and we need to be very careful about that."
This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Edge Content Studio. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.