Several residents in the area around the Miller Springs water bottling plant in the Sidley Mountain area are calling for a study of the aquifer before expansion of the plant is allowed to proceed by the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC). They say the study is needed to guarantee residents and all people downstream will not be placed in danger of losing agricultural capability due to shortage of water.
“Our concern is simple,” said area resident Don Halverson. “Can the aquifer sustain the increase in water extraction?”
Halverson also noted contradictions in documents filed by Miller Springs. Currently the operation is allowed to remove 6,250 litres per day. They have applied to the ALC for an increase to 50,000 L/d; and yet another number (300,000 L/d) was given to the Town of Osoyoos.
As well as aquifer levels, there is concern about the impact of the increased extraction on Nine Mile Creek and a nearby nature conservancy that Halverson says serves as an ecological benchmark. It contains old growth larch, some as much as 600 years old, as well as the Williamson sapsucker and other species at risk of extinction.
In addition to the study, residents say they would like a monitoring well south of the plant and a flow meter on the plant.
In January, Miller Springs sought support from the Town of Osoyoos stating that the lack of three-phase power is having a detrimental effect on the economic development. The company wants three-phase power so they can install machinery to blow the plastic bottles on site.
According to answers filed by Miller Springs to questions from the Town of Osoyoos, the plant now employs eight people, but that could go to 27 when the 10-year expansion is complete.
Not all neighbouring landowners are opposed to the expansion.
The bottling plant is currently shut down from November to March each year but the plans call for pumping two 10-hour shifts four days per week for 50 weeks per year.
“Although this appears to be a large quantity you must bear in mind that the centre pivots in our area draw approximately three million litres a day and in summer they irrigate for 160 days,” Miller Spring wrote to Osoyoos council. “Their annual draw is 466 million litres of water. There are three pivots in dose proximity to the plant. In the Osoyoos information package is a statement that the Naturo Group, who owns and markets products under the “Trace” brand name, has already injected $700,000 into the company.
“The Naturo Group will invest a further $1.3 million on a new bottling line and upgrading our facility; in the next five years it is planned that a further $2 million will be spent on the second phase.”
Osoyoos turned down the request for support on Feb. 16.
The Miller Springs water bottling facility sits on approximately 1.25 hectares of land. The bottling facility was approved as a non-farm use in 2008. A condition of that approval was that an expansion of buildings or increase in water extraction be submitted for consideration and approval by the ALC.
A number of residents have expressed concern that the level of their wells has reduced significantly over the past few years.
“Our concern is that there is no scientific knowledge of what there is underneath the ground for water supply,” Halverson said. “There is only anecdotal information on history, climate and usage from past years. What we are asking for is a scientific, independent hydrology study of the aquifer to determine the use and sustainability of the system that we have here.”
Miller Springs claims confidence there is adequate water based on past history, but some local residents doubt the numbers being put forward—again based on anecdotal evidence from local farmers.
Some residents have written letters to the ALC asking for a study of the aquifer before approval for expansion is given. It is undetermined who would pay for such a study. According to Halverson the company has said such a study is not in their business plan. “To me if doesn’t make sense to send millions of litres out of the country,” said Miller Springs neighbour Francis Eikanger. “At the root of our fears is that the aquifer isn’t capable of recharging fast enough.”
Halverson is hopeful that people who are concerned after taking a quick overview of the situation will write to the ALC.
The issue came up on the floor of Parliament in Victoria on March 26, but the government response was that it is before the ALC and they offered no further comment.