Nova Scotia is practically giving away ‘some of the purest water in Canada’

Part 1: Each year, Sobeys and Aquaterra pump hundreds of millions of lites of water from wells in Nova Scotia and bottle and sell it in grocery stores for potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in sales. For that water, the province charges the two companies a total of $769.
Supermarket display of plastic Big 8 "spring water" in bottles with their blue and white labels, and price label in yellow saying "So local" and the price $3.79 for plastic bundles of 24 bottles.

This is the first of a two-part series looking at bottled water from Nova Scotia’s underground, how much the province charges for it, and the real value of fresh water in the midst of a climate crisis. This article looks at the withdrawal of large amounts of groundwater in Colchester County by two large corporations, and at municipal efforts to benefit from those operations. This article was first published by the Halifax Examiner on January 2, 2024.

Every year, two corporations withdraw hundreds of millions of litres of groundwater from wells in Colchester County. They bottle the water – said to be “pristine” and “some of the purest water in Canada – and sell it far and wide, even internationally, as “spring water.”

The two corporations are Empire Company that owns Sobeys, which owns Big 8 Beverages, and Primo Water Corporation, which owns Aquaterra that in turn owns Canadian Springs.

It’s impossible to know how much those two corporations make from sales of that water.

And as of this writing, the Halifax Examiner has not yet been able to find out how much water Big 8 and Canadian Springs actually withdraw every year from their wells, which are tucked away on rural roads east of Truro in Colchester County.

Satellite image from Google Maps showing networks of suburban neighbourhood roads in eastern Truro and to the east of Truro, with the Salmon River visible and tracing a course from the upper right of the photo to the lower left corner. While some landmarks such as Tim Hortons and Home Hardware and Foodland locations are marked on Google maps, of note in this screenshot are two yellow circles with stars in them that mark the locations of the Big 8 and Canadian Springs well sites east of Truro.

Google Maps screenshot showing the locations – with yellow circles – of the well sites for Big 8 (owned by Sobeys that is part of the Empire Company) and Canadian Springs (owned by Aquaterra, that is part of the Primo Water Corp) east of Truro, NS.

Canadian Springs hasn’t responded to any of our questions, despite two emails and one phone call that was shunted to “corporate,” where the line went dead.

A Sobeys spokesperson did reply to some emailed questions, but didn’t answer the question of how much water the company withdraws in Colchester County.

We do know, however, how much Sobeys and Primo Water pay the municipality of Colchester for water that comes from the county, and “one of the purest aquifers in Canada.”

Absolutely nothing. Not one penny.

Municipality has sought water royalties for decades

A 2017 staff report prepared for Colchester Municipal Council notes that council “has a history of discussions and resolutions on the idea of a water royalty documented back to 2005.”

On three occasions since then, reads the staff report, “Council has requested the Province establish a royalty scheme on water bottling companies drawing from local aquifers,” so that the municipality could receive some revenue for its groundwater.

The report continues:

Colchester has also sponsored two resolutions at the UNSM [Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities], the second endorsed, requesting changes to the MGA [Municipal Government Act] to allow municipalities “to issue a levy on companies or persons who extracted water from within their municipality for the purpose of bottling and sale.”

Three times Colchester council’s requests for a royalty scheme have been denied.

The 2017 staff report puts it this way:

Each approach to the Province has garnered a rejection indicating that the matter would be looked at within an overall water strategy, or citing lack of precedent for delegated authority to municipalities, or expressing no interest in pursuing a provincial royalty program.

And:

While there is no precedent for Provincial relegation of authority on water royalties to municipalities, this is a function of policy rather than legal constraint.

Provinces have both jurisdiction and capacity to charge for and monitor groundwater; currently, in Nova Scotia, municipalities have neither. It is our water, but we own it legally as Nova Scotians, not Colchester citizens.

The 2017 staff report continues:

The only recent development that could prod the Province into reconsidering allowing municipalities to impose water royalties is their commitment to embrace the ONE Nova Scotia recommendations which include “Recognition of the rights of local communities to receive direct benefits from the ongoing resource extraction activities, and to be protected from the burden of post-extraction environmental remediation costs and consequences.” [p 56 Now or Never: The report of the Nova Scotia Commission on Building Our New Economy. February 2014]

As for concerns about the future of the aquifers, the report states:

Regarding the groundwater supply, contamination poses a bigger risk than depletion from over-extraction. Daily and annual water level data over the past 10 years of water bottling activities indicates there is no drop in groundwater levels.

The report concludes, “At current market rates, water royalties would not cover Colchester’s cost in administering them.”

Untapped source of revenue for municipalities

Still, Colchester Municipality Deputy Mayor Geoff Stewart thinks it is worth looking into the issue again and “having a discussion.” In an interview, Stewart told the Halifax Examiner that he obviously couldn’t speak for Council, but he would like to bring the question of water royalties to a council meeting to see what members think about it.

A smiling man with short dark hair and glasses smiles at the camera in a profile shot that also shows he is wearing a navy suit jacket, a red tie, and a light blue shirt.

Geoff Stewart represents District 3 and is Deputy Mayor of the Municipality of the County of Colchester, Nova Scotia. (contributed)

Stewart pointed out that there are royalties for other resources that are taken from underground, and thinks something similar could be considered for groundwater extraction. Said Stewart:

I look at it as a revenue source for a municipality. There’s an opportunity here, not just in Colchester, but there’s other areas in the province that companies are drawing water from for commercial use. Why not create a revenue source for municipalities? We only have one source of revenue and that’s basically property tax. So if we can generate other sources of revenue in conjunction with our provincial counterparts, why not create those opportunities?

Bargain basement prices for NS water

The Examiner asked the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing if the provincial government would consider imposing water royalties on companies like Big 8 (Sobeys) and Canadian Springs (part of the Primo Water Group), which could be shared with municipalities.

Spokesperson Krista Higdon replied:

The issue of allowing for water royalties under these circumstances has been raised with the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing in the past.  In 2014, the Minister of the time, sent a letter to Colchester County Council indicating that the Department had looked into the matter, and that the Province would not be pursuing the issue further. The Province is not currently contemplating amendments to allow for water royalties.

So that looks like a firm no.

Not that the province is bringing in much revenue from the extraction and bottling of all that ground water either.

According to Lorena Casales, spokesperson Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change (NSECC), the grand total that the province invoices the two corporations each year for hundreds of millions of litres of water from the wells in Colchester County is – wait for it – $768.85 (Canadian).

Sobeys’ well in Salmon River

The Big 8 well is at 912 Salmon River Road, in the community of Salmon River, a stone’s throw from the actual river of the same name. There are no Sobeys or Big 8 signs marking the spot, which consists of a parking lot and a tiny hut where gleaming stainless steel tanker trucks park to fill up with aquifer water. Nova Scotia Property Online records show the 4.9-acre Big 8 property in Salmon River is assessed as “commercial taxable” for $42,000.

Two silver tanker trucks are parked just inside the open gate of a chain-link fenced in gravel area, with a small white house-shaped structure behind them, with a recently gravelled parking lot in the foreground, and a few pine trees on either side of the fenced-in area, and dark forest in the background, under a mostly cloudy sky.

The well site at 912 Salmon River Road in Colchester County where Big 8 Beverages, owned by Sobeys, withdraws the aquifer water for its Big 8 water, which is trucked to Stellarton for bottling. Credit: Joan Baxter

In an email, Casales said Big 8 has had a water withdrawal approval for its Salmon River well since 2002. The company’s current approval, renewed in July 2020 and set to expire at the end of 2030, permits Big 8 to withdraw up to 650,000 litres a day.

Annually, that means Big 8 is permitted to withdraw 237.3 million litres.

For that, Casales says the province sends Big 8 an annual invoice of $360.27.

Casales has not yet answered questions about how much water Big 8 actually withdraws every day and year, whether it is extracting water from the same aquifer as Canadian Springs, and whether NSECC does any monitoring itself of the water levels and status in the aquifer. When she sends those answers, we’ll update this article.

The Examiner also asked Sarah Dawson, spokesperson for Sobeys, how much water Big draws monthly and annually from the aquifer.

“Our water withdrawal is within the allowance of our permit,” Dawson replied, skirting the actual question. We repeated the question in a follow-up email, but Dawson did not reply to that.

However, in her earlier email, Dawson said the company bought the property in 1998 and began bottling in 1999 using an existing well. Sobeys drilled its own well and obtained a permit for it in 2002, she added.

“We follow all the regulations and guidelines related to our water withdrawal permit,” Dawson said. “The aquifer is perpetually regenerating and will not deplete.”

“We own the well and infrastructure on that land and employ 45 full time, direct jobs in the operation of our spring water business,” Dawson added. “We pay municipal property taxes on the land we own in Colchester County. And, we adhere to all related acts, policies, and guidelines related to water withdrawal.”

Dawson clarified that the aquifer in Valley is the source of the water for Sobeys’ Big 8 brand water. The company gets water for its Big 8 soda production from the municipal water authority in Stellarton, Pictou County, which is also where the bottling plant is.

According to the 2017 staff report prepared for the Colchester Municipal Council, “Aquaterra and other high-volume water users (industrial, institutional and agricultural) contribute to Colchester’s economy through employment spending, and, to varying degrees, through property taxes.” However, the report noted:

Unfortunately, Big 8 offers no local economic offset to their resources extraction and heavy use of our roads (and the trucking company is from Hants) other than property taxes on one lot with a well.

Primo Water Corp in Nova Scotia

Canadian Springs’ well is just 4.5 kilometres east of the Big 8 property, at 249 Valley Road, in the community of Valley.

Canadian Springs is owned by Aquaterra, which in turn is part of the Primo Water Group, a multi-billion-dollar company that extracts and bottles and sells water all over North America. Canadian Springs is just one of more than a dozen Primo Water brands. The Canadian Springs in Valley operations consist of a bottling plant and a building that is labelled with the company’s name.

A grey office building with white framed windows and five vehicles parked in front, with three white trailers labelled "Armour" parked on the left, and a long while trailer pulled up to a loading door on the right side of the building. In the foreground the cracked pavement of the Valley Road, and overhead, a mostly grey cloudy sky.

Canadian Springs (owned by Aquaterra) bottling plant and well site at 249 Valley Road in Colchester County. Credit: Joan Baxter

As mentioned earlier, Canadian Springs did not respond to emailed questions about its operations in Valley.[1]

However, NSECC spokesperson Lorena Casales told the Examiner, “Aquaterra (Canadian Springs) has had an approval since 2009 and are approved at this time to withdraw 981,000 litre per day.

Casales has not yet answered questions about how much Aquaterra actually extracts daily and annually, but did say that the province invoices the company for $408.58 a year.

A screenshot of a website for Primo Water and Canadian Springs, with a photograph of a man seated in and paddling a canoe on a blue lake surrounded by trees and with mountains in the distance under a blue sky, and the words "Canadian Springs - Bringing you iconic water since 1882" on the left of the lake image.

Canadian Springs, owned by Aquaterra and part of the Primo Water Corporation, boasts of its “iconic water.”

Casales said there is an annual administration fee of $265.40, and invoices are based on “maximum allowance of litres per day.”

“Extraction rates could vary based on usage,” she added.

NS regulations 30 years old

Casales explained the legislation governing water withdrawals, and how Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change monitors them:

Some surface/groundwater withdrawals that exceed 23,000 litres per day require an approval under the Environment Act (the Activities Designation Regulations (Division I) while other withdrawals of this size are exempt; for example, a fire department needing to withdraw a large volume of water from a lake to fight a wildfire. Each approval has Terms and Conditions, and we monitor for compliance (for example, through audits, inspections, water withdrawal limits, reporting requirements).  For withdrawals for municipal, recreational, industrial, or domestic purposes that need an NSECC approval, there is an approval-to-use fee that is based on the annual volume used.  The Fee Regulations were created in 1994/95.

Casales provided a list of six companies that have commercial permits to withdraw 23,000 or more litres of water daily in Nova Scotia, four of which draw more than 100,000 litres a day for bottling:

Max daily withdrawal (l) Effective date Expiry Date Yearly invoice
SPA SPRINGS PARKS LIMITED (Kentville) 518,400 Aug 25, 2017 Aug 25, 2027 $341.06
CANADIAN ARTESIAN SPRINGS LIMITED (Yarmouth) 576,000 May 1, 2015 Apr 15, 2025 $349.47
BIG 8 BEVERAGES LIMITED (Truro) 650,000 Jul 13, 2022 Feb 7, 2030 $360.27
AQUATERRA CORPORATION (Truro) 981,000 Jan 2, 2019 Jan 2, 2029 $408.58

Casales has not yet clarified whether the yearly invoice amounts are an average or for the most recent fiscal year.

But if it’s the former, that would mean in the last decade Big 8 Beverages has paid $3,602.70 for the right to extract 650,000 litres per day, which, if the company extracted all it was allowed, would amount to nearly 2.4 billion litres of fresh water.

If Sobeys sells 24, 500-ml bottles of Big 8 water for $3.79 as it was at a Dartmouth store in December 2023, that means each litre costs about $.32, and the value of 2.4 billion litres would be about $758 million. Or, if the price is $3.29 for 12, 500-ml bottles, which was another option at the Dartmouth Sobeys store, the price would be $.55 a litre, and the gross income from 2.4 billion litres of spring water would have been about $1.3 billion.

Aquaterra (Canadian Springs) would have paid the province $4,085.80 since 2013, and if the company had withdrawn its full permitted amount of water, that would have totalled 3.6 billion litres, enough to fill 1,440 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Contrast the revenue the province received from both companies with the monies the provincial government has bestowed on them since 2013. Nova Scotia Public Accounts show that in the past decade, Canadian Springs has received more than $600,000 from various provincial departments.

In that time, Big 8 has received $557,998 from the Nova Scotia government, including a grant of $474,747.60 from the Department of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism in 2013.

‘A precious commodity’

Tom Taggart is the Progressive Conservative MLA for Colchester North, which includes the well sites where Big 8 and Canadian Springs draw their water. Before that, he spent 12 years as a municipal councillor in Colchester.

Portrait of a man with greenish eyes, a moustache and goatee, and neatly-cropped brown hair with sprinkles of grey around the temples, with a dark grey jacket a slightly askew teal blue tie and a Nova Scotia pin in his left lapel.

Tom Taggart, Progressive Conservative MLA for Colchester North Credit: Nova Scotia Legislature website

In an interview, Taggart said he recalls the municipal council’s efforts over the years to have the province consider royalties on water, which could be shared with the municipality.

“I don’t think the aquifer was the problem,” he said. “That’s what they told us. So to the best of my knowledge, we were never given a reason why they didn’t approve it at the time.”

However, Taggart cautioned, he has “no idea what the unintended consequences” might be of such a royalty scheme.

Asked if he thinks the commercial bottling companies should be paying more for the water than they do, if water should have a higher price, Taggart chose his words carefully.

“Certainly, that would be my initial thought,” he replied. “I think it’s a precious commodity and we’re very fortunate here that the amount we have.”

Taggart said he could not advocate one way or the other, or speak for council or councillors, but added that it they were to make another application to the province for royalties on water, that application “would be treated fairly.”

Council not giving up

It’s an issue that seems unlikely to go away any time soon.

In March 2023, Colchester Municipal Council once again passed a motion to raised the question of water royalties with the province:

That Council approves writing a letter to the Premier of Nova Scotia and the MLAs regarding exploring the possibility of water royalties from commercial companies drawing water from local aquifers.

There is no mention of that letter in the minutes of subsequent council meetings.

But that doesn’t mean the issue has gone away.

At a November 16, 2023 special council meeting, Colchester Council held a vote on whether to delay new wind turbine projects such as the massive ones being proposed by EverWind Fuels in Colchester County until its municipal planning strategy and land-use by-law was complete.

In the course of those discussions, Deputy Mayor Stewart once again raised the thorny question of water royalties, reminding council that there were, “thousands of litres of water being exported weekly with no benefits to the county.”

In fact, the actual number of litres of pure fresh groundwater being exported from Colchester County is not thousands, but millions of litres a week.

End Part 1.

Endnotes

[1] Halifax Examiner December 19, 2023 email to Canadian Springs:

This is a follow-up to my email of December 7, to which I have not yet received a reply. I am a Nova Scotian journalist, working on an article for the Halifax Examiner about groundwater management in Nova Scotia. I would be most grateful for your kind and urgent assistance with answers to the following questions:

  1. How much water does Canadian Springs draw daily (on average) and annually from the underground aquifer in Valley, Nova Scotia?
  2. How much of this is bottled in Nova Scotia? How much is sent elsewhere for bottling, if any?
  3. Where is the water from Valley sold?
  4. Under what brand name is it sold?
  5. How much does Canadian Springs pay the government of Nova Scotia in total for this water and the water permit each year?
  6. When did Canadian Springs start withdrawing water from Valley, Nova Scotia?
  7. Does Canadian Springs monitor the levels of water, and the age of the water in the aquifer? If so, how often?
  8. Are the levels the same as when Canadian Springs began to withdraw water from the aquifer in Valley? What year was that?
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