A Comox Valley family’s business proposal to establish a water bottling operation in Merville is earning them no friends in the small community in Electoral Area C.
The family intends to extract and bottle up to 10,000 litres of groundwater per day on their property on Sackville Road, and sell five-gallon jugs of it by home delivery throughout the Comox Valley.
The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development issued Christopher MacKenzie and his family a conditional water licence for the operation in November 2017.
The province has jurisdiction over below-ground water extraction practices in accordance with the B.C. Water Sustainability Act. However, the Comox Valley Regional District has jurisdiction over the proposed business’s above-ground operations, including zoning.
Once he had been issued the water licence by the province, MacKenzie applied for a rezoning application through the CVRD.
Directors on the CVRD’s electoral area services committee were briefed on the rezoning application at the committee’s monthly meeting on March 5.
Over 100 people — mostly from Merville — attended the meeting on Monday, filling the CVRD’s boardroom to above capacity. Some brandished signs that opposed MacKenzie’s business plan.
Among the Merville residents’ concerns is that extracting that much groundwater every day would put a further strain on the region’s aquifer. Some residents and farmers say they see droughts every summer.
“I think everyone is concerned about the water table,” said Grant Gordon, an Area C resident who attended Monday’s meeting. “The government sold the chicken coop here, they set the fox in the chicken coop by granting the licence.
“Obviously, the concern is with the licence and the province. The rezoning of the property — it looks like that’s the only say the locals have.”
Local farmer Arzeena Hamir said she was concerned with the lack of transparency in which the licence was issued.
“I think the whole community is concerned about how this licence was issued without public consultation and without proper study of the aquifer,” she said. “I reached out to the K’omoks First Nation and they vehemently oppose this application, but the licence still got issued.
“Now it sounds like the public has no input on the licence, that it’s a done deal. This is precedent-setting and we’re really worried as community members, as farmers.”
MacKenzie defended his business proposal at the meeting. He said he was disappointed at all the “false information” that had been spread throughout the community about his proposal.
“People are looking at us like we’re a corporation when really we’re just a cottage business trying to establish revenue for my small family,” he said at the meeting.
“Some people have taken it out of context completely and applied the word ‘Nestle’ to our little family brand.”
MacKenzie said the well water that came from his property was tested and came back at alkaline pH 8.1, which he said offers a health benefit that doesn’t come from usual tap water.
“The province realized that this is something special and that it’s not what everybody has,” he said. “It has beneficial use to anybody interested in a niche product that has health benefits in the long term for old people and young people. You can’t buy it anywhere.
“We want to respectfully request the community to understand that it’s something unique [and] it’s something the community needs.”
The electoral area services committee had three recommendations to consider on Monday; they could choose to deny the rezoning application, issue a temporary use permit to the business, or refer the application to external agencies and First Nations groups for further review.
Area C director Edwin Grieve initially stated that he would like to see the rezoning application denied outright, considering the extent of the public backlash it had received.
“We’ve got people here in the gallery who are not in support,” he said. “Why would the committee not take the opportunity to save the proponent the time and money and deny it right at this point?”
But Area B director Rod Nichol said there is no harm in referring the matter to other stakeholders in order for more information to come to the CVRD in the near future.
The committee eventually approved the recommendation to refer the rezoning application to external stakeholders.
The issue will come back to the CVRD for a public hearing in the future, though the date is not known at this time.