Ministry officials explain and justify their Sackville Road groundwater extraction decision, saying no negative effects will result. But Merville residents question the ministry’s data and remain suspicious about negative effects on their wells
EDITOR’s NOTE: This story was updated at 11 a.m. July 17
Provincial government officials who reviewed and approved a groundwater extraction license for a proposed Sackville Road water bottling operation explained their decision-making process to a packed house at the Merville Community Hall last night (July 16).
Representatives of the Nanaimo Branch of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) used a PowerPoint presentation to convince the crowd of several hundred people that the extraction of up to 10,000 litres per day from their aquifer won’t result in any negative effects.
The crowd wasn’t buying it.
The audience listened to the presentations with few interruptions and applauded politely for each speaker.
But when the question and answer period began, the mood turned raucous, with catcalls and loud and long cheering for citizens who pressed the ministry officials to defend what was called a “ridiculous” decision.
The ministry issued a groundwater license to Christopher Scott Mackenzie and Regula Heynck, who hope to create a commercial business by selling up to 3.65 million litres of water annually.
The Comox Valley Regional District has not approved the couple’s rezoning application, which is necessary to allow such an operation on the property.
Citizens questioned whether the ministry actually has reliable data about aquifer #408, because the studies it has relied on are 18 years old, and since then accelerated population growth and climate change have altered the facts.
Other citizens called most of the presentation irrelevant because it referred to the effects of the Sackville groundwater extraction on nearby drilled wells. But according to residents, 90 percent of the wells in the area are not drilled, but shallow.
Area C CVRD Director Edwin Grieve, MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard and the Sackville applicants attended the presentation.
How the decision was made
Pat Lapcevic, water protection section head for the ministry’s west coast region, talked through the science behind the extraction approval.
She showed charts of the ministry’s simulations that estimate that current groundwater use in the Merville aquifer is less than 20 percent of its annual recharge, which has been stable over the last 15 years based on data from an observation well located 12 km from the Sackville site.
The aquifer is recharged — a fresh input of water — by precipitation falling on the area and by snowmelt from the Beaufort Mountains.
She said the annual recharge is 34 million metres-cubed, or 34 trillion litres. The current use is estimated at six million metres-cubed, or 18 percent.
Lapcevic said pumping out 10,000 litres per day is “expected” to drawdown water levels in the aquifer by less than three centimetres. It represents less than one percent of the annual recharge.
Daryl Slater, a resource manager in FLNRORD’s Nanaimo office, reminded the audience that his ministry does not make policy, it only implements and monitors policy made by the Ministry of Environment and the BC Legislature.
Ticking off the considerations in reviewing a groundwater license application, Slater said the ministry could find no reason to deny it. They found no negative effects on anyone’s rights or to the wells of nearby users.
Slater said his office consulted with Island Health, local governments, the Ministry of Highways, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and archeology experts.
He said they also consulted with K’omoks First Nations, but would not reveal the content of those consultations, which he called confidential.
But K’omoks First Nations has publicly opposed the water bottling operation and the issuing of a water license, and told the FLNRORD ministry so in 2017 during the consultation process.
In a strong letter to the CVRD, KFN Chief Nicole Rempel explained their opposition.
Citizens wondered what was the point of ministry consultations if both the Comox Valley Regional District and K’omoks First Nation opposed granting a water license, and the ministry approved it anyway.
Citizens contradict FLNRORD
Bunky Hall, whose shallow well is the closest to the Sackville site, challenged ministry “estimations” of the effect of drilled wells on shallow wells.
He said when the Portuguese Creek Restoration Society drilled a well to keep the stream from going dry during the summer, his 16-foot deep shallow well went dry two days later.
When a water delivery service brought him water, they asked what was going on because they had never delivered water to that area before and all of a sudden they were getting multiple requests.
Ministry officials dismissed his experience saying there probably wasn’t any connection between the two events.
Lapcevic responded that shallow wells were sensitive to climate change and maybe it wasn’t the drilled, pumping well that caused his well to go dry.
“Most of what the ministry people presented tonight is irrelevant,” Hall told Decafnation after the meeting. “About 90 percent of the wells in the vicinity (of Sackville Road) are shallow wells. They only talked about the effects on drilled wells.”
The Technical Report summarty states that “the well (WTN 111987) is on the applicant’s property and is flowing artesian at roughly 15 gpm so a pump is not required at this time.”
Neither Slater or Lapcevic explained that if a pump is unnecessary how the aquifer could be confined and not affect shallow wells.
Bruce Gibbons, a member of the Merville Water Guardians and lives on ALR land about 300 metres from the Sackville Road site, said the ministry presented more detailed information than was contained in their original Technical Report.
“It appears they did significant work after the decision was made and after the opposition to their decision arose,” he told Decafnation.
Gibbons was privy to the original Technical Report because he filed an appeal to the FLNRORD decision. The ministry has not revealed the report to anyone else.
Even MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard was unable to get a copy of the original report.
And the ministry has still not responded to a Freedom of Information request for the report filed in March by Merville Organics farmer Arzeena Hamir.
Slater told the audience he didn’t know why the FOI request hadn’t been fulfilled. He said it’s “unfortunate” it takes so long.
Another speaker challenged the ministry’s assumptions about the stability of the aquifer.
She said the climate change is causing the Comox Glacier and other nearby glaciers to melt, which could be artificially inflating the aquifer’s recharge rate and its stability.
Lapcevic said the ministry is not seeing changes so far due to climate change, but the Sackville Road decision was based on the best data at the time.
Wayne Bradley recognized the FLNRORD ministry was bound by legislation in its decision-making process, so he called on MLA Leonard to champion a political movement to amend the Water Sustainability Act.
“We need to recognize that water is a common property,” he said. “Private profit on a sale of community property is not a beneficial use.”
Leonard left the meeting without responding to Bradley, but made a statement earlier that residents “should feel assured that I have posed these questions also.”
She said the Water Sustainability Act is new, and it’s moving water rights issues in the right direction.
“It takes time,” she said. “Be active, make your concerns known.”