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

Part 2. What are the environmental costs of bottling and exporting Nova Scotia's groundwater?
crumpled 500 ml plastic water bottle with a blue label identifying it as "Big 8" brand, lying amid stones, fallen leaves, grass and a fir branch

This is the second of a two-part series looking at two commercial groundwater wells in Colchester County – one owned by the Sobeys company Big 8 Beverages, and the other by Canadian Springs, owned by Aquaterra. This article examines some of the environmental implications of such commercial water bottling, when the planet is experiencing not just a climate crisis, but also a plastic pollution crisis. This article was originally published by the Halifax Examiner, and the first article in this series is available here.

In June 2013, the year the Sobeys company, Big 8 Beverages, received a grant of nearly half a million dollars from the Nova Scotia government, it installed equipment in its Stellarton facility that allowed the company to produce its own bottles and to “significantly reduce” its costs.

Two years later, Big 8 won Invest Nova Scotia’s “export achievement award.” To honour the occasion, Invest Nova Scotia put together a promotional video for the company, which features narration from Brad Bethell, Big 8 general manager.

The face of a clean-shaven man with short-cropped brown hair and blue eyes in the foreground, with a large plastic bottle of water with a blue tint and cap behind him, and under his face, a blue circle logo with three curved lines inside it, and the words 'Brad Bethell, General Manager" in a blue banner across the bottom of the screenshot, taken from a video.

Screenshot from Invest Nova Scotia video featuring 2015 Export Achievement Award Winner: Big 8 Beverages, owned by Sobeys, showing its general manager, Brad Bethell.

In the video, Bethell said:

Essentially, we can bottle a 500 ml bottle of water inline from a pre-form all the way through to palletizing it without touching it, so it’s very efficient, very effective, and we actually produce over 250,000 single bottles a day.

You really have to understand your market that you’re operating in now, your domestic market, and make sure you’re one of the best. And then once you know the business model, the cost, the logistics, we work with NSBI [Nova Scotia Business Inc.] to make some great contacts to help educate ourselves, on what we need to do to be competitive, and to get into the export trade.

A man wearing a baseball cap and glasses stands in the middle of a U-shaped assemblyline full of plastic bottles full of orange pop with labels identifying it in navy blue lettering as Big 8.

Still showing the Big 8 bottling plant in Stellarton, taken from the Invest Nova Scotia video promoting 2015 Export Achievement Award Winner: Big 8 Beverages.

Invest Nova Scotia also did a Q and A with Julie Nowe, Big 8’s finance and business development manager. Nowe said the “cost reduction” Big8 was able to make by producing its own bottles, and the bottling plant in Stellarton being close to the port of Halifax, positioned Big 8 for exporting “top-quality Canadian bottled spring water or soft drinks.”

“Now we’re exporting to China, Barbados, and Aruba, and we’re looking at further development in Asia and some Middle Eastern countries,” said Nowe.

“We have a niche here because of our excellent water source. We acquire our water from an underground aquifer in Valley, Nova Scotia, which is one of the purest aquifers in Canada,” Nowe noted.

As reported in Part 1 of this series, the two corporations extracting water in Colchester County for bottling are Empire Company that owns Sobeys, which in turn owns Big 8 Beverages, and Primo Water Corporation that owns Aquaterra, which in turn owns Canadian Springs.

According to Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change (NSECC), Sobeys has a water withdrawal permit that allows it to withdraw 650,000 litres a day, which works out to 2.4 billion litres a year. For this, it pays the provincial government $360.27 annually. Aquaterra can withdraw 961,000 litres a day, or 3.6 billion litres a year, for which it pays $408.58 annually.

Export award for exporting…plastic

Tony Walker is a professor in the School for Resource and Environmental studies at Dalhousie University.

A man with a brush cut and light brown hair, wearing a grey t-shirt and a backpack takes a selfie in front of a calm lake and a treed, rockey shoreline, under a blue sky with a few clouds.

Dalhousie University Professor Tony Walker at Long Lake Provincial Park, Nova Scotia (contributed)

When the Halifax Examiner told Walker how much Big 8 and Canadian Springs pay annually for the hundreds of millions of litres of ground water they are permitted to withdraw in Colchester County, he responded, “It’s as if this water has zero value. ‘So we’ll give it we give it to you for free,’ which is ridiculous when we consider how important water is for life.”

Walker continued:

Water is a priceless resource. Without water there’s no life on earth. And so the industry is selling bottled water, they’re making profits from selling water, but they’re essentially just selling plastic.

And once that water’s consumed, it’s a single-use item, right? So they drink the 500 ml, half a litre, assuming that’s the size of these bottles on average. And then they’re tossed into the recycling. But guess what? We only recycle 9%. So we’re producing plastic waste, and we’re producing plastic pollution. The big picture on this is we’re actually damaging and polluting the earth for a product from which, as a province, we’re gaining nothing from the sale of this resource.

“So basically, we’re polluting our own jurisdiction and other jurisdictions, where the waste management infrastructure is even worse than it is here in Canada,” Walker added.

Six 500-ml plastic bottles of Big 8 Spring Water wrapped in plastic on a white shelf in a Sobeys store, with the price $2.29 underneath the bottles. Written on the plastic wrap around the bottles are the words "Made with Atlantic Pride."

Big 8 six-pack of 500 ml bottles in a Sobeys store in December 2023. Credit: Joan Baxter

“Here in Canada we’re not even recycling anywhere where we need to be, with the exception of British Columbia, that has extended producer responsibility. So it’s a terrible business model.”

Climate concerns

Walker is also concerned about the greenhouse gas emissions involved in transporting bottled water long distances, including the globe.

“Water is very expensive to transport because it’s heavier than the gasoline that is burned to transport it,” Walker said. “So a truck full of [bottled] water is going to burn fossil fuels and emit huge amounts of greenhouse gases to ship it, whether by train, truck or ship.”

 Asked how he would manage Nova Scotia’s groundwater resources, were he a Nova Scotian government official and decision-maker, Walker replied that he would “start with the basics,” and:

…make sure that there is an accurate inventory of the recharge rates of these aquifers, the water quality of these aquifers, and have built in a precautionary approach to the business model.

He pointed out that Nova Scotians who are not on municipal water systems rely on groundwater in wells, and we’ve been extracting groundwater for domestic use for centuries. But when it comes to commercial withdrawal of water, Walker said it is crucial that we know what volume of water can be sustainably extracted.

That’s the very first thing we should do,” Walker said.

Assign a ‘real value’ to the water

“The second thing we should do is charge appropriately for this resource,” Walker told the Halifax Examiner. He continued:

And guess what? The industries that come and extract a gazillion litres may not be quick to do so if they get charged an appropriate amount per litre. Then the real value is actually assigned to the water resource, and it’s not overexploited. They would probably treat it as a more precious resource when they have to pay for the extraction of that resource. At the moment, it sounds like it’s a free-for-all; they they’re not paying anywhere near what its true value is.

How water resources are managed in Nova Scotia is particularly important in the context of the climate crisis, said Walker:

We’re seeing dramatic changes in the forest moisture and that forest moisture is causing those forest fires [of 2023]. So we know the land is drying up. And yes, we have those events where it floods as well, but it’s so inconsistent. So the recharge rates of these aquifers are also going to be inconsistent, and you can’t rely on the status quo. This is why we should treat water as more of a precious resource than we all currently do. Without water – it sounds dramatic – but there is no life.

As for assumptions that Nova Scotia has enormous quantities of ground water, and that there is no need for concern about the depletion of the resource, Walker is skeptical.

“Wells go dry all the time and aquifers go dry all the time,” Walker said. For aquifers to replenish, hydrological cycles have to be functioning properly.

All it takes is a seasonal change in a dry seasonal spell and the aquifer does not recharge. [In Nova Scotia] we overcompensated later on in the year with high rainfall in 2023, and in the winter [of 2024] we’re likely going to have plenty of snowpack which will melt in the spring. But again, all it takes is a dry seasonal spell and the aquifer does not recharge. Or the recharge rate is lower, or the water quality is lower.

Walker said flooding can be just as dangerous for groundwater as drought:

All it takes is a gas station or a couple of gas stations to flood out as well. And then you’ve got petroleum products or someone’s oil tank leaks into the flood water, and then that will dissipate all over and make its way into the groundwater. So even if the groundwater is replenishing and the water table is high, you might also have a contaminated aquifer, which is not good. It’s a resource, and it should be protected.

Diminishing freshwater supplies

Shortly after that interview with Tony Walker, the CBC’s Moira Donovan reported on a test project in southwestern Nova Scotia to desalinate sea water to supply drinking water in the area. Donovan wrote that dry summers have been causing wells to go dry for years, and “water shortages have happened repeatedly.”

“And as the effects of climate change intensify, the Municipality of Barrington is looking to the sea as it faces threats to its water supply,” Donovan reported.

Back in 2011, even as Statistics Canada was noting how fortunate Canada was to be “richly endowed” with water, it was also warning about diminishing renewable fresh water resources:

Possessing one of the largest renewable supplies of freshwater in the world, it has access to upwards of 20% of the world’s surface freshwater and 7% of the world’s renewable water flow. Although our resources are large, from 1971 to 2004 the freshwater supply decreased in southern Canada, where 98% of the population lives. Over the same period, water yield, or the average annual renewable freshwater supply, fell by 9%. Annually, this represents an average loss of 3.5 billion cubic metres, the equivalent of 1.4 million Olympic-sized swimming pools—almost as much water as was supplied to Canada’s entire residential population in 2005.

‘Blue gold’

Mark Calzavara is the national water campaigner with the Council of Canadians, and like Tony Walker, he would like to see fresh water better protected and more valued.

In an interview, Calzavara said:

Water has been identified for a couple of decades or more as the new blue gold. Everyone recognizes it’s getting scarcer. The demand is growing. It’s becoming more polluted. We’re emptying our aquifers. And now with climate change, changing all the patterns, there’s no sure thing except somebody is going to be desperate for water in the near future somewhere. People want to make money off of water because you can’t live without it. There’s no replacement for it. You can go a month without food, but three days without water and you’re finished.

The Examiner asked Calzavara about attitudes towards water in Canada. His response:

People in Canada don’t necessarily take it for granted, but I don’t think that people always recognize always just how quickly things can change. I think people are maybe a little bit invested in the myth that we have a bounty of water in Canada.

But where is that water? If you’re in the middle of the prairies, you might not have access to so much water. Or even in Ontario, even in Guelph, where they take the Nestlé bottled water, there are water shortages almost every year. There are droughts and orders from municipalities not to water your lawn except, you know, maybe once a week. The drought levels are surprising, and all the aquifer levels are typically falling.

The predictions are that will get worse with climate change, because instead of getting decent amounts of snow that slowly melts and trickles to refill the aquifers, it’s deluges of rain all at once in the summer. And that just washes over the hard-packed earth and into the rivers and out to sea eventually. So it doesn’t get that replenishment.

Calzavara noted that provincial environment departments across Canada are not growing, and as a result staff often “don’t have the time or the expertise to do their own studies or even necessarily to look very hard at studies provided to them” by industry.

Nor, he said, are there a lot of obvious benefits to communities or provinces where commercial water bottlers are extracting water.

Water leaves watershed forever

Like Walker, Calzavara is also critical of bottling groundwater and shipping it all over the country. However, he specified that he was not talking about people who buy water in 15-litre containers because their tap water is not drinkable for whatever reason.

Rather, Calzavara was referring to single-use 500- or 750-ml bottles people buy at the supermarket in crates, even though they have exceptionally safe and good tap water from well-maintained and much-tested municipal water utilities in their homes.

“It’s phenomenally expensive and wasteful,” he said. “From an environmental point of view, the climate change aspect of it is tremendous. It’s very heavy, with the impact of burning all those fossil fuels.”

But Calzavara’s concerns go beyond that.

Groundwater that is extracted from Colchester County, for example, and shipped elsewhere for sale “leaves that watershed forever,” he said.

Calzavara explained:

If somebody is watering their grass or the local golf course or it’s agriculture, they can draw from the groundwater, use it, and then, a lot of it anyway is going back into the aquifer. But when you bottle it and send it all over the country, that water’s gone forever.

Local benefits of water extraction are few, according to Calzavara.

There are “very few jobs related to bottled water,” he told the Examiner. “They contribute so little to the communities that they are in, generally, speaking.”

Calzavara said the Council of Canadians has “great hopes” that the new Canada Water Agency, for which the federal government introduced legislation in November 2023, will help provincial governments collect and manage information about water resources across the country.

Nova Scotia ‘monitoring’ water withdrawal

The Examiner asked Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change whether there were any provisions to restrict how much groundwater could be withdrawn for commercial purposes, given changing weather patterns caused by climate change.

Spokesperson Lorena Casales noted that information on water resources in Nova Scotia is publicly available on its groundwater web page. As for the impacts of climate change on water, Casales wrote:

…the Terms and Conditions of our approvals include monitoring to demonstrate that the withdrawal rates are not impacting the availability of water resources for other users, or for ecological needs. In response to climate change causing more extreme fluctuations (more extreme highs and more extreme lows) in aquifers, we continue to adapt our programs to ensure that climate change is considered in all withdrawal approvals.

We also asked Casales if Big 8 and Canadian Springs draw from the same aquifer, and if NSECC does any of its own monitoring of the levels and age of the water in the aquifer(s), to assess the rate of replenishment and any fluctuation in water levels in the aquifer(s) over time? If not, does it get regular data from Big 8 and Canadian Springs on this, and if so, how often?

As of publication, we have not received replies to those questions. We will add the information when we receive it. Nearly two months later, we’ve received nothing.

End of two-part series

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