Blewett residents question bottled water extraction

Public meeting planned for April 21 on community water issues

Aquifer 511

A Blewett group wonders if there is enough water in the aquifer underlying the community to support a bottled water plant and meet the community’s domestic water needs.

The Blewett Conservation Society has launched a petition addressed to the BC legislature, requesting the government take action to protect domestic water supplies from private enterprises and carry out a water sustainability plan for the community in accordance with BC’s new Water Sustainability Act.

The group’s immediate concern is Okinshaw Water Ltd., which runs a bottled water plant on Shasheen Road in Blewett. But their concerns go beyond one specific company, according to the society’s K.L. Kivi.

“It doesn’t matter who functions in our domestic watersheds forestry, mining, recreation, agriculture, industry we want to ensure the quantity and quality of water in our human community and our ecological community, for now and into the future,” she said.

“If independent third party studies and ongoing monitoring confirm that taking water from our shared Blewett aquifer for bottling purposes is sustainable alongside domestic or environmental flows, then we will accept that.”

To prove an aquifer is sustainable, a hydrogeologist would have to create a water budget for the aquifer, according to Dr. Gilles Wendling, a consulting hydrogeologist in Nanaimo.

“You need to calculate how much goes into the aquifer and how much is used,” he told the Star. “Aquifers are connected to surface water, and groundwater always moves, recharging and discharging.”

He said you would have to look at the output: where the aquifer discharges. For example, if it discharges into a river, it may be crucial to the flow of that river, so “even if the aquifer is huge, it might already be allocated, to supply the river.”

He said this would require complex studies because not much is known about most aquifers in Canada.

“Existing data is mediocre,” he said. “In Europe they have hundreds of years of good information. In Canada, some have been researched, but the majority are not well understood, characterized or monitored. We are still in the middle ages in terms of understanding groundwater.”

Okinshaw’s production

Okinshaw Water, according to owner Wayne Rutherford, is “a very small company,” currently producing 30 to 50 18-litre bottles of its branded Riva Water per month as well as about 8,000 500-millilitre bottles that it markets in BC to grocery stores and gas stations. He said the company no longer produces the Canadian Ice brand promoted on Okinshaw’s website.

Rutherford said the company bottles Riva Water and markets it as unique in its health benefits because of its naturally high alkalinity.

“We want to bring high quality water to the Canadian health industry,” he said. “Disease cannot survive in an alkaline environment. That is the only reason we got into this business.”

He said the company attempted to market its product to Asia in 2015 but recently changed its mind and decided to concentrate on the Canadian market.

“Until we have a strong understanding of the Canadian market and where we fit in that market competition wise we will not be pursuing any international markets,” he told the Star.

Riva Water is sold on amazon.ca. The product description reads: “Drink to your health to the very last drop with this supernatural artesian mineral water! This high alkaline mineral water, rich in electrolytes, is geologically captured and earth-filtered in an underground aquifer inside the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, Canada. Escape to the mountains, smell the trees, and hear the rushing rivers as you taste this pure pristine water! Your life just got a whole lot better!”

In addition to the assertion that its water comes from the Rocky Mountains (Blewett is actually in the Selkirk range), Okinshaw’s website explains that the water comes from an artesian aquifer in the high alpine.

The aquifer

BC’s Ministry of Environment maps and names aquifers in BC. According to the ministry’s website, Blewett is underlain by Aquifer 511, shown on maps as a triangle-shaped area of 11.2 square kilometres bounded on two sides by 49 Creek and Kootenay Lake. The maps show several dozen domestic wells drawing from the aquifer. A map of the boundaries of the aquifer can be found in the online version of this story at nelsonstar.com.

Okinshaw, however, says the aquifer is 35 square kilometres. Rutherford said he wasn’t familiar with the designation Aquifer 511 and expects it must be a different aquifer. However, the ministry map shows no other aquifer in the area.

Rutherford explained his understanding of the aquifer is based on a study done for the company’s previous owner— a report he said is not available to the public or the press without the signing of a non-disclosure agreement.

“The report said if we did 250 bottles a minute, 24 hours a day, 300 days a year, we would use less than one per cent of the aquifer,” Rutherford said.

Asked for further details, he referred the Star to the author of the report, Dr. Roger Drinkwater of Vernon. Drinkwater told the Star the report was a business assessment for the company, based on what is already known about the aquifer. He wasn’t familiar with the designation Aquifer 511 either.

Drinkwater described himself as a business manager, scientist, and technical business consultant with a PhD in chemistry and physiology. He is currently CEO of Vital Waters Inc., an alkaline water business in Kelowna.

Drinkwater told the Star that “based on estimates of the renewal capacity of the aquifer (the amount of new water entering it each year) Okinshaw Water would use less than one per cent of the water.”

Asked how he arrived at this estimate, Drinkwater said that information was provided to him by one of the original owners, who quoted information from Groundwater Regions of BC, published by the Ministry of Environment.

But provincial government sources have told the Star that little is known about the aquifer’s capacity and that it has never been studied.

The Ministry of the Environment’s website describes Aquifer 511 as a bedrock aquifer with “moderate productivity, moderate vulnerability, and low demand.”

This may explain why Drinkwater added many strong caveats to the estimates Okinshaw has been relying on.

He said there are “perhaps 150 million cubic meters of new groundwater per year coming into that system” but qualified this by saying that it is “based on very general estimates of the catchment area and the depth of the aquifer. There appears to be a large quantity of water in it and again this is a very generalized measurement.”

Asked where the water in the aquifer comes from, Drinkwater said it’s difficult to determine. “Without understanding the geomorphology of the strata that is underneath, you are not quite sure where the water is collected from. We can assume the water is coming from regions on both sides of the valley.”

The Star contacted Dr. Alfonso Rivera, chief hydrologist at the Geological Survey of Canada, and author of Canada’s Groundwater Resources. We asked what it would take to calculate an aquifer’s capacity.

“You have to know how much water is stored in it, and how much it is being recharged yearly,” he said. “Then with those two numbers you can estimate the water budget. With that you can calculate a water volume in cubic meters.”

He said that calculation would involve a survey of the water depths of existing wells and the creation of a water table map from that, a study of the porosity and permeability of the rock associated with the aquifer, measurements of the depth of the aquifer, and the rate at which water flows through it. Add an analysis of climate, rainfall, evapotranspiration, runoff, infiltration, and a calculation of the “cone of depression” how much each well influences the water available to others and a picture of the storability and dynamics of the aquifer can emerge.

Rivera said such a study could cost anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000, depending on the circumstances.

A new law, a lawsuit, and a public meeting

BC’s new Water Sustainability Act, which came into effect in January, regulates groundwater for the first time. Under the regulations, non-domestic users of groundwater will have to get a licence, and this includes current users, which will not be grandfathered.

In the meantime, Okinshaw is being sued by the previous owners of the water bottling plant, Mike and Deborah Marello, for breach of contract related to the sale in 2013. The action is ongoing in BC Supreme Court in Campbell River.

The Blewett Conservation Society recently announced a public meeting to be held at the Blewett School on April 21 to address broad issues of water in the community.

This story was updated on March 10 to change the date of the Blewett Conservation Society community meeting from April 22 (an error) to April 21.

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