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Nestle Waters Canada sign by the entrance to their Guelph, Ont. bottling operations, pictured on Nov 25 2015.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

What is it with Canadians and their water?

We have more fresh water than any other country in the world.

And yet a lot of us aren't convinced there is enough to go around.

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Witness the furor over Swiss multinational Nestlé's purchase of a small commercial well near the historic mill town of Elora, Ont., 100 kilometres northwest of Toronto. Nestlé, which recently outmanoeuvred the township of Centre Wellington for the well, plans to draw up to 1,364 litres per minute to help supply its nearby water bottling plant.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has called for special regulations to cover water bottling, which she called a "different kind of industry."

Warning that Canada is on the verge of a water apocalypse, the Council of Canadians is promoting a boycott of all Nestlé products. The citizens' advocacy group blames the company for squandering groundwater for the sake of frivolous consumption.

"This is a bad use of our water," Maude Barlow, the council's national chairperson, told the CBC recently. "Canada has a coming water crisis. People don't understand this, but they will in time."

Centre Wellington Mayor Kelly Linton, quite reasonably, wants assurances that his fast-growing rural township will have enough water to meet future needs.

There is scant evidence, however, that Canada, Ontario or Elora are in the grips of a "water crisis." And even if there is a crisis, Nestlé is not the problem. Among consumers with permits to draw water in the Grand River watershed, which includes Elora, water bottlers take about 0.6 per cent, according to a 2014 water management plan for the area. The largest users are municipalities (60 per cent) and farms (10 per cent).

Across Canada, water bottlers account for roughly 0.2 per cent of regulated water use. Nearly 97 per cent is used for power generation, manufacturing, cities and farms.

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Nestlé insists that it will apply to the province for a permit to draw water at the Elora well only if tests show there is "no negative impact on the water source or surrounding ecosystem."

That isn't to say Canada couldn't do a much better job of managing its vast water resources for the long term.

A key issue for regulators is putting a reasonable price on the resource. Nestlé currently pays Ontario $3.71 for every million litres it takes. That seems like a bargain when you consider that a single bottle can cost as much as $2 in a vending machine.

But at least Nestlé pays. Ninety-five per cent of users in the province pay nothing at all for their water, including farms, plus a host of big industrial users such as oil refiners, pulp and paper mills, steel makers, power companies and mines.

Nestlé insists it's willing to pay more as long as other industrial users also share the burden. "All groundwater users should pay their fair share," said Andreanne Simard, Nestlé's natural resource manager.

Water prices vary widely across Canada. Quebec charges commercial users $70 per million litres, but millions of homes in the province aren't metered, encouraging overuse. In B.C., where water bottling has also been controversial, the price is $2.25 per million litres, but it's applied to a wider basket of users than in Ontario.

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Water is a renewable resource, but it's not an unlimited one. Charging people what water is really worth – or at least what it costs to manage it and keep it clean – would go a long way to promoting more rational and sustainable use.

A 2015 policy paper published by the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy provocatively argues that Canada should go further and "commoditize" its water resources. Author Rhett Larson, an associate law professor and environmental law expert at Arizona State University, said Canada should treat water the same way it does oil or gold – as "a valuable commodity on the international market with benefits from exportation outweighing the costs of depletion."

Governments could also do a much better job of accurately tracking the country's water resources, and limiting water withdrawals when necessary to protect the environment.

But fabricating a bogus water crisis and turning water bottling companies into the baddies is unlikely to produce a sound policy response.

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