When the news percolated into the community of Merville on Vancouver Island that a conditional groundwater license had been granted by the Province of BC to allow commercial water bottling from a local aquifer, community members jumped to action.
K’omoks First Nations issued a strong statement of opposition against the license being granted in their territory. KFN Chief Nicole Rempel called the license for water extraction for profit in Merville “an insult to our Nation and people”. The Mid-Island Farmers Institute looked to have the province rescind the bottling approval. A group of citizens concerned about the potential impacts to the local aquifer organized together as the Merville Water Guardians. The Merville Water Guardians teamed up with Our Water BC to inform the community and challenge the license, which authorized the applicant to extract up to 10,000 litres of freshwater per day for the water bottling operation.
“It feels like everyone we talk to is outraged that this is happening and they have strong opinions about our groundwater, but we don’t think there’s been a unified voice out there.”
- Bruce Gibbons, founder of Merville Water Guardians
Although the license had already been granted by the Province, it remained conditional upon the successful re-zoning of the property to allow the applicant to conduct the commercial water bottling. The decision to grant or deny the zoning bylaw change fell to the Comox Valley Regional District, and Councillors promptly looked to the Official Community Plan, the Merville community and to K’omoks First Nations for guidance on their decision.
Photo by Justin Goulet/98.9 The Goat/Vista Radio
Meanwhile, the Merville Water Guardians and Our Water BC launched the Action for Aquifers campaign, collecting hundreds of petition signatures, hosting two local community water dialogues, and addressing over 600 letters to local regional district representatives, MLAs and Ministers. The Merville Water Guardians arranged meetings with government officials to continue to challenge the water bottling license through an environmental appeal process.
Finally, after 6 months of discussions and debate, the zoning bylaw change was unanimously defeated by the Comox Valley Regional District.
Since that decision was announced, the applicant has applied for an amendment to the license, which would allow water extracted from the aquifer to be trucked to a water bottling location outside of the Comox Valley Regional District.
Neighboring communities have rallied to oppose this move, and are working to unite Vancouver Island to take a stand against groundwater extraction for commercial purposes such as water bottling, bulk water export, or private sales.
“Water is a human right and a necessity for all life. When any corporate entity tries to commodify it and sell it for profit, it is a threat to our common, public right to water. We have seen the results of this around the world
when private corporations get control of public water sources.”
- Brenda Leigh, Area D Director, Strathcona Regional District
Learning from the Merville story
The movement that started in Merville clearly shows that grassroots organizing ignited in a small community can have extraordinary and lasting impact. From the beginning, the Merville Water Guardians engaged close neighbours, nearby regional government and importantly, far away provincial officials who had allocated a local aquifer without public consultation. Working with Our Water BC to connect a hyper-local issue with the bigger picture question of water sustainability and groundwater protection in British Columbia helped to spread the word beyond the Comox Valley and create allies with freshwater groups and residents across the province.
What’s happening now?
-On September 28, the K’ómoks First Nation and the Comox Valley Regional District signed a historic agreement for management of water resources in the valley. Chief Nicole Rempel had this to say about the agreement: “These relationships are important to KFN so we we can continue to play an active role in the decisions being made in our territory...And this is a great accomplishment in a time of reconciliation.”
-On October 10, Comox Valley residents filled a community centre in Courtenay to have a conversation about what a resilient water future could look like in the valley. The event was sponsored by Comox Valley Water Watch, Our Water BC, Watershed Sentinel, Comox Valley Conservation Partnership, Merville Water Guardians and the Comox Valley Council of Canadians.
-Our Water BC and Merville Water Guardians are working together to call on the BC government to fulfill their commitment to review water rentals (in particular for high-volume water users) and ensure that rates encourage conservation and generate the revenue needed to protect the health of our shared waters.
-The Merville Water Guardians remain firmly at the forefront of community conversations around groundwater sustainability in the Comox Valley and Vancouver Island, and continue to fight for local decision-making and transparency on how groundwater is monitored, managed and allocated. Support the Merville Water Guardians and follow their efforts on Facebook.
-Merville is an unincorporated community in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, with a population of about 1,300.
-The aquifer in question is on Sackville Road and is the source of community drinking water, and is a water supply for local farming and agriculture needs.
1) Google Maps
2) Justin Goulet/98.9 The Goat/Vista Radio