Safeguarding Golden: The Fight to Ban Bottling in Golden BC

When the development of a commercial water bottling plant was slated to take place in Golden, the little town banded together to push out industry and preserve their watershed.

Randa Sultan, Anna Urban and Karen Hunter of the Water Guardians of Golden presenting their petition to MLA Doug Clovechok. Image via The Golden Star. 

By: Katia Bannister

Rumours hung heavy in the humid air when Anna Urban returned home to the town of Golden in the summer of 2019. Whispers of a proposed commercial water bottling plant spread like wildfire throughout Golden — a small town in BC’s Columbia Valley near Alberta, nestled between six beautiful Canadian National Parks; Banff, Glacier, Jasper, Kootenay, Mount Revelstoke, and Yoho.

Karen Hunter heard the rumours too. At first, it was all just supposition and guesswork. But then an article appeared in the local paper. And it confirmed the community’s biggest concerns for their watershed.

“Investment group plans to build water bottling facility in Golden” announced the headline. When Karen read those words a resounding “No!” reverberated through her body.

“It was just such a bad fit for the community,” she said when she and Anna sat down to an interview about their involvement in Golden’s community-led campaign against the bottling plant. Anna agreed. “We live next to a lot of water, and there were so many question marks,” she said. “We don’t know the consequences. Short-term or long-term. So what does that mean for us? What does that mean for the future? What does that mean for the ecosystems? And what about the quality of the water?” queried Anna. Karen nodded vigorously. “Nobody here supports it, except maybe a few people that would make a bit of money off it. And the community really didn’t have a say. It was quite obviously a water grab.”

And what a water grab it would have been. When you Google “Golden BC”, the search results point clearly to water being a defining feature of life in and around Golden. Dozens upon dozens of articles detailing the best things to do and where to do them in the little town in southeastern British Columbia. Among them are hiking, swimming, paddling and rafting around Lake Louise, and the Columbia and Kicking Horse rivers. One article entitled “The 5 Most Instagrammable Spots Near Golden, BC To Check Off Your List” catalogues some of the most picturesque and Instagram-worthy destinations surrounding Golden, and every single one of them shares a connection to the watershed; whether breathtaking mountain top views of the nearby winding rivers or canoeing through glistening emerald lakes. With such an emphasis on the watershed as a defining feature of Golden, such pristine salmon-bearing rivers running along either side of the town, and local economies that are built on fishing, recreation and freshwater tourism, it is easy to see why the citizens of Golden are prepared to rally around their watersheds, and also why the area is so appealing to commercial entities — just like GoldenKey Investments, the company that proposed the water bottling plant in the first place.

So in August 2019, right after GoldenKey Investments publicized their plans to open a commercial water bottling plant and begin extracting water from the local aquifer Anna, Karen and numerous other concerned citizens of Golden decided something needed to be done. But what to do? And who to do it?

Image via The Golden Star.

Karen remarked to me, “At first I was thinking, “Well who’s gonna do something to stop this?” And I looked around and nobody was, and so I was like “Well, I guess I gotta do something then.”” Anna agreed and added, “I just couldn’t not do anything.”

The next step was getting the issue in front of local government representatives. So at the next meeting of the Golden Town Council, it was arranged for another water advocate, Annette Luttermann, to give a presentation on the issue to the council and whoever else felt compelled to attend the meeting.

On the day of, the turnout was unprecedented. Never before had a Town Council meeting in Golden been so packed. Hundreds of concerned residents turned up to the meeting, so many that they couldn't cram tightly enough to allow everyone to attend the meeting. Windows and doors were opened so that those unfortunate enough to not make it inside the building could crane their necks and strain their ears to watch the proceedings and listen in.

Image via the Water Guardians of Golden.

When asked why this issue garnered such an exceptional turnout, Anna pondered her answer before saying “It really touched the heart of the whole community” and with a newly instilled sense of urgency, the fight to ban commercial water bottling in Golden very quickly became a community-led campaign.

In the meeting’s wake, a unanimous and community-wide understanding was reached. As Anna put it, the potential “downstream consequences” of GoldenKey Investments’ proposed project were too great for it to go through, and the entire community of Golden was ready to rally around their water. But in the aftermath of the meeting, two troubling pieces of information had come to light. Prior to the last session, Council hasn't really been aware of the plans laid out by GoldenKey Investments to open up a commercial water bottling plant and commence groundwater extraction in one of Golden’s residential areas. And not only that, but once apprised of the situation, and even with the weight of the community behind them — Councillors did not have the power to give industry the boot. Instead, the little power they had was to use the particular site selected for the bottling plant to their advantage.

Where GoldenKey Investments had chosen to construct their new facility was right down the road from Anna’s house, a residential area… with residential zoning. Unsurprisingly, commercial endeavours cannot take place in residentially-zoned areas. Hence, GoldenKey Investments would have needed to submit a rezoning application to have the zoning bylaws in and around Anna’s neighbourhood changed to allow industry to operate right next door to people’s homes; bringing with it potential noise, commercial traffic, and pollution, and a definite draw on the aquifer. However, the power to approve GoldenKey Investments’ rezoning application would lie with Council, and the community as a whole. Declining the application if it were to come through would neutralize the threat — at least the immediate one — to Golden’s watershed. But with a rezoning application yet to come through, Council began exploring the idea of passing a bylaw that would ban the activity of water bottling within Golden. Two different courses of action, both harbouring real conflict and concern amongst Council and the greater community.

According to Anna and Karen, it seemed like Mayor and Councillors were worried about potential accusations of fettering, backlash from the investment group and the risk of subsequent litigation if they passed policy as an obvious and direct response to the proposed plant.

It was time for Golden to show their local government that the decision to ban bottling was one worth making. It was time to mobilize. But how?

Anna, Karen, Annette and their fourth teammate Amber Van Drielen set to work. Despite “never having done anything like it before,” Karen found herself taking to social media and creating a Facebook group that went through a couple iterations before finally being coined “Water Guardians of Golden.” The page was created for the purpose of information sharing, collaboration, and conversation — and was used to rally residents for the initial Town Hall that sparked the community-wide conversation around water in Golden — and consequently, an online community began to form. Emboldened by her success on Facebook, Karen then went on to create a petition to ask for the province to stop issuing licenses for bottling water for bulk export, following a consultation with the MLA for Columbia River-Revelstoke Doug Clovechok who was in support of the efforts being made to protect freshwater in Golden.

Image via the Water Guardians of Golden.

Golden may only be home to a population of around 4,000 people, but the response to the petition was overwhelming. In total, the petition collected 944 petition signatures from the residents of Golden, and from the surrounding communities who are also stakeholders in conversations about shared water sources. This petition was eventually turned over to MLA Doug Clovechok who presented it in the legislature.

The fight to ban bottling in Golden was in motion. And it was being championed — in part — by two women who describe themselves as simply “moms”. “I’m just sort of a mom, you know?” shared Karen. “But I guess I’ve also realized that you can make a difference part-time, even as just a mom.” Anna nodded and added, “We are mothers, fathers, soccer coaches, and so it can be hard to compete with industry for a voice when we’re just trying to keep our lives afloat.” But Anna knows that as difficult as it can be to compete, it is part of her job as a mother to think about the future of the community her children are growing up in. “We need to see where our feet are, and protect the water, where we stand,” she said purposefully.

And Golden was standing up and digging in. With heeding from Anna and Karen, Mayor Ron Oszust and Council, as well as MLA Doug Clovechok and the then-Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations Doug Donaldson began to receive letters from the community in droves. The correspondence poured in. And then came the calls. Phone lines ringing off the hook. For a long time, there was nary a quiet moment in the offices of Golden’s public officials.

Anna attributed this to how she and other advocates had really just encouraged people to learn fully about the goings-on in their community, and facilitated this by not only making information about the water bottling issue in Golden more accessible, but by encouraging residents to ask questions about the proposed water bottling plant if the proposal made them at all uncomfortable, and increasing the accessibility of the contact information for the people they could ask those questions to. “Knowing human nature, if it’s accessible it’s easier to take those steps'' shared Anna, “And I think that is a part of what made it so successful — that people were really encouraged to follow their curiosity.” And oftentimes, it seemed that those pursued concerns and curiosities led residents to the conclusion that GoldenKey Investments' plans to begin commercial groundwater in their community were not aligned with community values, ecological health, or public safety or wellbeing.

Image via the Water Guardians of Golden.

The mass-uptake of these actions finally demonstrated to Mayor Ron Oszust and Golden’s Town Councillors that it was time to take meaningful steps to protect their local watershed and that the people of Golden were fed up with entities with no ties to their community getting to make decisions that impact their aquifer without their say. As a result, Council came together at long last to pass a resolution to explore creating a bylaw that would make trying to start commercial water bottling enterprises far less profitable for big corporations. The proposed model for the potential bylaw detailed that groundwater extraction for profit within the town boundary would be contingent on companies having to plug themselves into the town’s public water system, and then pay a rate to the town itself based on how much water they extract from the aquifer. Karen explained the thought behind the successful implementation of such a bylaw was “that it would be just one more deterrent for them to be here. If they could get it basically for free somewhere else, why would they want to set up shop where they’d have to pay for it instead?”

So it looked like the dedication of local advocates and passionate citizens had paid off, and Golden was on track to protecting its watershed as a new bylaw to change the regulation of commercial groundwater extraction was underway and GoldenKey Investments’ rezoning application sat unapproved by the local council. But Anna, Karen, Annette and other watershed advocates from the community were still worried. They wondered when the next threat to their watershed would come. And felt concerned about other communities across BC — how would they protect their watersheds from commercial greed?

The way forward emerged from a seemingly dead end, when the advocates to safeguard Golden noticed that for every letter sent to then-FLNRO Minister Doug Donaldson, they received a standard disingenuous written response back, telling them to “refer to the Water Sustainability Act,” shared Karen. After receiving so many of these automated and pre-formulated responses from the government that guided them towards the Water Sustainability Act — Anna, Karen and Annette began to wonder, what was this document and why didn’t it seem to be securing their water?

After doing some research, they quickly realized that communities were not being consulted about the use of their water like they should be. And conflicts over water use like the one currently taking place in Golden are setting precedent for a change. Documents like the Water Sustainability Act need to be living, breathing documents that are able to change and respond to the needs of the communities they are supposed to protect. Without “life,” adaptability, or proper use of these documents, our freshwater continues to be at risk. In short, community consultation is key, and British Columbians are relying on their provincial governments to do away with the current approach of at-a-distance decision-making, in order to secure the safety of citizens and their communities.

“I think that what we — as citizens — are recognizing is that people who aren’t actually invested in the community, and making our decisions for us, and our community actually has zero say,” relayed Anna. But Karen, Amber, Anna, and Annette weren't looking to be complacent. They were looking to change things. For the better.

And all it took was a few Google searches, determination, and a hit — and the water guardians of Golden knew how they were going to ensure the security of BC’s freshwater for generations to come.

Near the beginning of their upstream battle to protect their watershed, Golden’s water advocates were earnestly conducting research into how to approach the issues they were facing, and a quick look online showed that a similar dispute over groundwater use had erupted in the small town of Merville on Vancouver Island a little more than a year earlier — in March 2018. That spring residents of Merville were surprised to learn that one of their neighbours had been granted a licence by the provincial government that would allow for the extraction of up to 10,000 litres of water per day from the local aquifer, and for the subsequent bottling and commercial sale of this water.

Via by Justin Goulet/98.9 The Goat/Vista Radio.

Concerned about what this would mean for his watershed, a Merville resident, Bruce Gibbons, decided to take action by taking up the issue with local municipalities. This marked the beginning of his campaign for the regional government to stand against the commercial bottling of groundwater through the implementation of local bylaws. Bruce teamed up with the Canadian Freshwater Alliance utilizing their online tools, provincial-wide reach and community mobilizing knowledge to rally British Columbians to write letters in support of a resolution to cease the licensing of groundwater for commercial bottling at the next convention of the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) — the largest gathering of municipalities, regional districts and First Nations across the province. This resolution was passed successfully and once again amplified the call for the BC Government to immediately cease the licensing and extraction of groundwater for commercial sale as bottled water.

With the discovery of their shared struggle, and in hopes of finding an ally for the upstream battle against bottling that was yet to come, the water guardians of Golden made contact with the Canadian Freshwater Alliance (CFA), and the water guardians from Merville, led by Bruce. Together, CFA, Merville and Golden pooled their resources and combined forces, looking to amplify the call for community consultation on local groundwater extraction. And Golden had a lead on just how to do it.

Annette and Amber were particularly interested in pursuing a legal angle to protect BC’s freshwater. And through research and personal connections, they discovered that the University of Victoria's Environmental Law program accepted applications from BC communities that were in need of legal support on issues impacting their community. The communities whose applications were chosen were assigned law students who would work on their cases as “learning projects” and free of charge.

And now, with the support of the University of Victoria's Environmental Law program, the water guardians of Golden have produced a submission to the provincial government that has now been put forward along with 5 recommendations including a moratorium on water bottling for commercial use until community decision-making boards can be developed to ensure that bottling projects taking place in local aquifers align with community values.

This is not the end of the fight to secure watersheds in Golden, Merville, or across the province. But it is the beginning of an upstream fight to safeguard the future of BC’s freshwater sources, and people like Karen and Anna, they’re willing to be a part of that fight.

“I just really care about the water,” explained Anna. “And our time here is so short, we just have a responsibility.”

“The people that live here are going to need water… forever,” started Karen and Anna finished, “So today we just have to dig our heels in a bit more, the pressure’s on, the pressure’s building.”

Do you want to join the fight to secure BC’s freshwater? Sign the petition to ban water bottling in BC or check out our Banning Bottling Toolkit!