How the Proposed Commercial Water-taking Impacts our Municipal Water System

Talk at the May 9 Community Information Evening

For the next few minutes I will share with you information you may or may not know about a serious problem in our own backyard. This is the local story occurring underneath the radar that the public needs to know.

I’ll begin with what you likely know. Our township is facing several water challenges. Besides Nestlé’s purchase of the Middlebrook well, there is the Township’s shocking new population target announced in May 2016. The province and the county determined that we are to double the number of residents in Fergus and Elora by 2041. Very few communities in Ontario face this accelerated growth rate.

Two years ago, concerned residents hired their own hydrogeologist to undertake a through investigation of Nestlé’s impact on the township’s water system. The residents chose Garry Hunter, a civil engineer, who was instrumental in stopping the Mega Quarry near Shelburne.

Garry’s initial focus was Nestlé’s request for a permit to take 1.6 million litres per day, a rate approximately equal to the combined daily rate of three of Centre Wellington’s best municipal wells. After further research, he realized he should focus – not on the Middlebrook well – but on our township’s water infrastructure.

His first report issued in May 2016 predicted that several of our 8 municipal wells are incapable of pumping to their permitted amount; that these wells will not support our forecasted growth, meaning we need additional new wells; that the reliance of one in eight residents on private wells within the urban boundary restricts how much the township can draw down the water level when operating its wells; and that Nestlé’s water-taking at Middlebrook will directly compete with Centre Wellington’s expansion of its municipal water system.

Our County Councillor Shawn Watters will confirm that finding suitable sites for new municipal wells is a huge undertaking for this community. It can take upwards of eight years to get a single new well online and cost up to $4 million before the water is finally flowing. Centre Wellington has a history of difficulties in finding sites for our municipal wells.

In the late 1990s, Shawn was a township councillor on the committee charged with finding a new source of water for Centre Wellington. Eventually the well was constructed behind the racetrack on the Cottontail Trail. Shawn, for those who had been following the problem, has stated all along that water is an underlying issue in our community, yet few have been listening, until now!

So here’s the story most of you haven’t heard. Where does the water come from for our wells? Under our community the water flows north to south through cracks and fissures in the deep bedrock, and this direction determines where best to locate a new municipal well.

Municipal wells, situated upstream of their southern counterparts, interfere with the southern wells’ ability to draw water.

Extending our well system further south from Fergus is not feasible due to the City of Guelph’s well capture zones, which extend now north to Swan Creek at the south end of Fergus. We will be competing with Guelph for water if we go south. In fact the town tried a test well south of Fergus near Highway 6 and Second Line and found that there wasn’t enough capacity there for a Township well.

Logically, the best locations for future municipal wells are to the east of Fergus and west of Elora.

However, east of Fergus in some locations the ground is too unstable for a high production well, and there is a history of water quality issues associated with deeper wells and increased pumping due to the bedrock conditions near Fergus.

The best location for future Township water and very good water is west of Elora, but here Nestle blocks our expansion. High capacity wells require a minimum 2 km. separation to prevent well interference. So, with Nestlé at the Middlebrook well 2 km down the road, this wipes out from the equation the whole area west of Elora as a possible source for new municipal water.

So here’s another fact – we the taxpayers and municipal water users will have to pay more when the town has to go further afield for good water sources, or has to pay to treat poorer quality water to bring it up to standard.

Our township’s water manager Colin Baker and the township’s hydrogeologist Ray Blackport support this assessment of the situation. They agree the ‘easy’ water has already been found, and by easy water they mean water close to the municipality and easy to obtain without constraints. Finding new sources of groundwater now becomes more difficult.

Garry’s report revealed another inconvenient truth, that our current infrastructure for drinking water with or without growth, or Nestlé, already faces challenges.

Some of our wells have issues with quality, and others with capacity. Elora’s three wells interfere with each other, particularly the well by Jeffersons and the well on the Cottontail Trail, despite these wells being more than 2 km apart. Mutual interference and interference with private wells mean that these two wells cannot pump continuously at a high rate at the same time.

Some of our wells are now registering chloride from road salt, indicating that surface water is beginning to leach into our deep aquifer in those locations.

Fergus’s five wells have their challenges. The one near the high school can only pump at 50%; otherwise sediment gets in. The well at the north end of Gartshore, shows deterioration of water quality with increased pumping due to elevated sulphur. So that well is used only as much as it’s needed.

The oldest Fergus well, beside Groves hospital, has some trichloroethylene contamination from old industry, requiring air stripping remediation of this water before it’s used as drinking water.

So, the township provides us with excellent water, but this is a tricky and costly system to maintain. It’s not an easy system.

The Hunter report must be a signal to the province, to the county and to the municipality that our situation here is serious – that under any scenario Nestlé’s water taking is a huge risk for our municipal water system and our wallets.

Another inconvenient truth we have discovered is the negative financial impact of Nestlé’s presence in our community. Our County and Township are focused on increasing their access to tax money, and while Nestlé may be good for the County’s pocket, it is not good for ours.

Nestlé currently pays approximately $38,000 in property taxes for the Middlebrook property. This will be dramatically reduced when they remove the building and put in a small well house. Then they will be paying less in taxes than many of us present here tonight, while extracting enough water every day that could service 2,700 homes. By comparison, these homes would generate over $2 million in property taxes for the Township alone.

We the taxpayers have to understand that if we have to pipe water here from further from town this will be an enormous cost. This work will be funded out of our water bills, so very clearly the residents are going to be paying so that Nestlé can take and export our water.

The first Hunter report provided the facts needed to bolster the efforts of Save Our Water and Wellington Water Watchers, who together:

  • contributed to the Province’s decision to deny Nestlé a pump test permit
  • persuaded the Province to authorize a scoped Tier 3 study
  • encouraged the township to submit a bid for the Middlebrook well
  • emboldened the province to slap a 2 year moratorium on the bottled water industry, and,
  • instigated the township’s moving forward with its Water Supply Master Plan.

So the province and the township are listening.

Garry has continued with this project for two years and now has a substantial new report ready to go. The advance results are in.

All of this has been an eye-opener for a lot of people, our council and mayor included. Whereas the deterioration and repair of our roads and bridges is visible to all, what happens underground is another story. We take our water system for granted. We turn on our taps and expect water to come out. We don’t appreciate what is involved in ensuring this happens.

It is important that we residents understand these challenges with our water system, and understand that Centre Wellington’s ability to service its growth will be put in serious jeopardy by Nestlé’s commercial extraction at the Middlebrook well. When we all know and understand where our drinking water comes from and how it gets to our taps, then we understand why we have to protect our precious sources of water.

The Province has to understand that they can’t have it both ways. The Province cannot target this community for 100% growth in the next 23 years, while also permitting a municipal-scale extraction by a private industry, putting our drinking water system at risk.

It can make no sense to our council or to the province or to anyone to permit competition between a township mandated to grow and an exploitative commercial water-taker at the edge of town.