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Environmentalists question First Nations’ water bottling proposal

Conservation groups are calling for an environmental assessment to examine a water bottling business proposed by two small First Nation bands.

“I think we need to look at the big picture…water is the new gold,” said Lannie Keller of Read Island, a tourism operator who also speaks on behalf of the Friends of Bute Inlet.

The Kwiakah and Da’naxda’xw First Nations are working together on “high-end water bottling” proposal in conjunction with former gold mining executive Bill Chornobay. Together, they have applied for water licences on approximately 40 streams, all located in mainland inlets – Bute, Jervis, Toba and Knight.

“We are doing our due diligence and following the application process to the ‘T’…more than 70,000 hectares are under our protection and we don’t need them to tell us how to manage the environment,” said Frank Voelker, the manager of the 19-member Kwiakah band which is based in Campbell River.

The Friends of Bute Inlet, Sierra Clubs of Quadra Island and Malaspina, the Sunshine Coast Conservation Association, the Campbell River chapter of the Council of Canadians, and West Coast Environmental Law are calling for an environmental assessment. They’re concerned with potential cumulative effects of drawing the fresh stream water and they want an opportunity for the public to comment on the proposal.

In particular, they’re worried about the provision which would allow the daily collection of up to 25,000 gallons of water a day from each stream.

“I am extremely concerned about the impact of these projects. Individually they may appear to some to be comparatively innocuous, but put together we are talking about a huge amount of water,” said North Island MLA Trevena in a news release. “I have met with the Minister of Environment, Murray Coell, and hope that he looks at these plans as a whole, and orders a cumulative environmental assessment. We need accountability on this – not a quick survey.”

But Voelker said their studies show the water collection will have little or next to no environmental impact and it’s unlikely they would ever draw the maximum amount of water allowed daily from each and every stream.

“There are other stakeholders who are not necessarily water licence holders,” he said. “We would have to work around each other’s schedules.”

He further explained the bands are taking a “cluster approach” to the water licences by having a group of streams close together, in any one inlet, that would allow for a more economical and flexible approach to water collection.

And water collection would be done by a single skiff along with a containment barge which would travel the cluster route.

Voelker said the skiff would travel to the mouths of the creeks and then a long, flexible hose would be used to collect water directly from waterfalls or near-vertical falls, just before it enters the ocean. Voelker added the majority of the creeks are too steep to be fish-bearing, and by taking water just before it enters the ocean, it would be the “most environmentally-friendly extraction process.”

The water would then be barged to a bottling plant in Vancouver. Voelker said the plan is to bottle a high-end product that could be sold in upscale restaurants. He also wonders why the environmental groups started a media campaign without ever contacting the Kwiakah or the Alert Bay-based Da’naxda’xw band to learn about the project details.

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