Did the provincial government do an in-depth technical study before issuing a licence for a Merville couple to extract 10,000 litres per day for a water bottling operation?

Or, did they approve the licence without doing a sufficient examination of the aquifer from which the water would be drawn and the number of farmers who depend on that water to grow local produce?

And, is it possible that British Columbia has designed its open government regulations to allow ministries to effectively thwart citizen’s requests for information?

Those questions are being asked this week because the Ministry of Forests, Land, Natural Resources, Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD), which granted the Merville groundwater licence, has stalled a Freedom of Information (FOI) request for more than a month.

Merville area farmer Arzeena Hamir, owner of Merville Organics, submitted an FOI request in March regarding the recent decision to grant a groundwater license in Merville (File – 20004026, Water License – 500169) for a water extraction and bottling operation.

Hamir wanted to know, “How Ministry staff determined that a public consultation did not need to occur; How Ministry staff determined that the aquifer did not need to be studied; The Ministry staff response to the Komox First Nations referral to the application. (Date Range for Record Search: From 07/01/2016 To 12/31/2017).”

More than a month later, Hamir still hasn’t any idea when the ministry will send her the requested information.

On April 26, she received an email from Andrew Bonneau, a senior FOI analyst in the Ministry of Citizen’s Services, saying that she’s not much closer to getting the information.

“The ministry is currently in the process of confirming that there will no longer be any fees for your request based on the new wording,” Bonneau wrote. “I am anticipating on receiving a response from them shortly and once confirmed, they will begin gathering the records and I will be able to provide you with a new due date for your request.

“Depending on the total number of records that are received and/or whether or not any consultations will be required with other public bodies, there may be a need to extend the due date of your request, however, I will inform you if that will be necessary at that time,” he wrote.

In other words, the ministry has no intention of fulfilling Hamir’s request on a timely basis, and it could be another month or two before she gets any of the information.

That’s not acceptable.

Hamir has asked Comox Valley MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard to look into the issue.

“This is insane. It’s taken FLNRORD more than three weeks to tell the FOI office how long it’s now going to take them to produce just one report,” she said. “Then they have another 30 days to provide that report.”

Several Merville area farmers who are concerned about a loss of water for crop irrigation have questioned whether the ministry did a sufficient study of the demands on the aquifer in question before issuing the extraction licence.

Christopher Scott MacKenzie and his wife, Regula Heynck, applied for a licence to extract 10,000 litres per day or 3.65 million litres per year. The Comox Valley Regional District and the K’omoks First Nation opposed the licence application, but the ministry approved it anyway.

There are environmentally sensitive areas surrounding the property, including many farms and Agricultural Land Reserve areas that rely on groundwater.

Area C Direct Edwin Grieve warned that aquifers eventually get pumped down and he wondered what effect that would have on the water supply for nearby farms. He noted that climate changes have caused Portuguese Creek to dry up in the summer.

The CVRD must approve a rezoning application to permit “water and beverage bottling” as a principal use on the property. CVRD staff are gathering information and will report back to the board of directors in May or June.

The Area C Advisory Planning Commission discussed the rezoning issue at its May 2, 2018 at 7 p.m. at the CVRD board room. There was no public input at this meeting. Full report to follow.

Meanwhile, Hamir wants the information she requested from the ministry quickly so she and other Merville area farmers can review the data on which the water extraction licence was approved.

Hamir said given the public controversy the water licence has created, “it’s hard to believe this report and the other information I requested aren’t readily available on somebody’s desk.”

George Le Masurier

DecafNation