On Merville groundwater extraction it’s deja vu all over again

On Merville groundwater extraction it’s deja vu all over again

Electoral area directors deferred amended application to a future meeting, want province to explain licensing rules

On Merville groundwater extraction it’s deja vu all over again

It was standing room only in the Comox Valley Regional District Civic Room on Jan. 9 as about 80 people squeezed into the Civic Room for the Electoral Areas Services Committee (EASC) meeting.

This is an uncommon turnout for such meetings, but many people have uncommonly strong feelings about protecting shared local water resources.

After the new EASC chair and vice-chair were acclaimed (Richard Hardy and Edwin Grieve, respectively), and Ed Hoeppner made a presentation on Hornby Island’s composting toilet residuals, the committee heard from Bruce Gibbons, the tireless leader of the Merville Water Guardians, opposing yet another iteration of Scott MacKenzie and Regula Heynck’s application to extract groundwater at 2400 and 2410 Sackville Road.

“It was, and still is, obvious that the residents, farmers and elected officials of the Comox Valley do not want the water from the Comox Valley aquifer to be extracted and sold for commercial profit.”  — Bruce Gibbons, January 9

As we reminded you last week, way back in 2017 MacKenzie and Heynck received a conditional license from the province to extract water for bottling. Their 2018 zoning amendment application to the CVRD board, requesting that the Board add “water bottling” to the list of permitted uses on the property, was denied.

The initial conditional license was supposed to expire Dec.31, 2020, if the project wasn’t up and running by then. As Gibbons explained, “On January 4th, 2021, … I was told the licensee would be given 30 days notice and then the cancellation process would commence.”

However, it was never cancelled. As noted in the CVRD staff report on the matter: “In 2022, the applicant applied to the province to amend the above-noted conditional water licence to change the purpose of the water use from ‘industrial (fresh water bottling)’ to ‘waterworks (water sales and water delivery).’”

The CVRD staff report prepared for the meeting recommended that the amended application, which would essentially accept this enterprise as a “home occupation” under OCP bylaws, be accepted: “The activities of bulk water treatment, storage, transport, and sales are permitted on the subject property, under conditions of a Home Occupation which is a permitted accessory use within the subject property’s Rural Eight (RU-8) zone.”

“We can’t live without water”

Gibbons reminded the committee of the recent droughts experienced on Vancouver Island:
• Total rainfall from July 4th to Oct 22nd was 7.8 mm; normal is 155 mm.
• A Stage 4 drought was declared for East Vancouver Island again from mid-September to mid-October 2021, and a Stage 5 drought from mid-October to early November.
• Total rainfall for October was 22.2 mm. The normal is 122.8 mm. October is historically one of our wettest months of the year, so 18% of normal rainfall should be a serious concern.

“Combine these drought statistics with the rapidly and significantly receding Comox Glacier, and water security in the Comox Valley is at risk,” he said.

He wrapped up by imploring the committee to deny the application for the amendment to the original water license, which drew a standing ovation from the audience.

“The CVRD has been transparent, thoughtful, respectful and thorough” in handling this case, which has generated much interest from the public, said CVRD CAO Russell Dyson, after reminding attendees that the CVRD has jurisdiction only to regulate use and development on the surface of land; groundwater extraction and water licensing are a provincial matter.

What is a home occupation?

CVRD senior planner Jodi MacLean explained that the zoning bylaw doesn’t prohibit bulk water treatment, storage, transport, and sales on the subject property if it is designated as a home occupation.

Edwin Grieve stated that “We have an obligation to follow our own zoning,” but questioned why the K’ómoks First Nation had not been consulted on this latest amendment. “I’m very underwhelmed by the [lack of] support we’re getting from our provincial government,” he said, referring both to this matter and the issue of ship-breaking in Royston.

Director Daniel Arbour questioned whether staff were taking too broad a view. If carried to extremes, he wondered, “Could a nuclear facility be considered a home occupation?” under this kind of interpretation.

He was being facetious, but the point was made. He listed a number of activities that are explicitly acceptable on RU-8 properties like MacKenzie and Heynck’s: agricultural use, plant nursery and greenhouse, riding academy, etc. “I see water processing as a much more industrial/commercial kind of activity that has broader impacts,” he commented.

Dyson noted that a home occupation is general in nature, and that the CVRD could get a legal opinion on the matter.

MacKenzie allowed to speak

Toward the end of the discussion, Scott MacKenzie, who was participating remotely, was invited to speak, to the initial displeasure of Gibbons and the audience (MacKenzie had not made an official delegation request).

MacKenzie’s remarks included the words “bias and slander,” “defrauded,” “coercion,” “lynching,” and “outraged,” as well as a demand for Edwin Grieve to recuse himself.

The committee voted unanimously to defer the matter to a future meeting of the EASC to obtain a legal opinion regarding the definition of home occupation and to request the province of BC to come before the committee to explain its role and responsibility regarding water extraction. The EASC directors also want to confirm the position of K’ómoks First Nation on the amendment.





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Comox Valley local government elections ramping up for Oct. 15 vote

Comox Valley voters will elect new councilors, mayors, regional district representatives, school board members and Island Trust reps on Oct. 15. Find out who’s running for what … and why. Decafnation returns to shine more light on local government issues and candidates

Merville water bottling issue returns to the CVRD, highlights provincial water policies

Merville water bottling issue returns to the CVRD, highlights provincial water policies

The Merville issue is about land use but draws attention to outdated provincial water policies

Merville water bottling issue returns to the CVRD, highlights provincial water policies


The long-awaited rain finally began to fall on Vancouver Island this week, but it’s the drought that extended from summer through fall that has geologists, water system managers and homeowners who depend on wells worried about our groundwater supplies.

The driest fall in decades shut down the BC Hydro power generator on the Puntledge River for the first time in more than a half-century. Mt. Washington aquifers were so depleted, the resort asked skiers not to bathe and bring their own drinking water.

All around the world, and particularly in the American southwest, water shortages have reached dire levels. And that will ultimately concern Comox Valley residents when California and Mexico can no longer supply us with abundant fruits and vegetables.

If this trend continues – and an irreversible climate change insures that it will – we will need Island farmers to fill that gap, which in turn means a higher demand for groundwater supplies by local agriculture.

What this all adds up to is that water for drinking and growing food are destined to become the center of controversial public policy. Who has access? How will water supplies be rationed equitably?

That debate will take center stage at Monday’s meeting (Jan. 9, 2023) of the Electoral Services Commission when regional directors consider an amended application for a water bottling and distribution operation in Merville.

The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) – now known as Land Water and Resource Stewardship (LWS) – issued a conditional water license nearly five years ago to Christopher Scott MacKenzie and Reugla Heynck. The license permitted the couple to extract up to 10,000 litres of groundwater per day on their Sackville Road property.

The license required the couple to “make beneficial use of the license” by Dec. 31, 2020. But when the Comox Valley Regional District denied a rezoning application to vary existing land use regulations, it stopped the couple’s original business plan.

Bruce Gibbons, the founder of the Merville Water Guardians that opposes this groundwater extraction, learned last April that LWS had received an application to amend the couple’s water license. The ministry referred the application for an amendment to the Comox Valley Regional District to determine if the amended purpose of the license would now meet existing bylaw and zoning requirements.

Neither the LWS nor the CVRD has disclosed the details of the application for amendment. But sources within the regional district say the issue will be on the agenda for the Jan. 9 Electoral Areas Service Commission (EASC), which would normally be released on Friday, Jan. 6 before the meeting.

Our sources also say that the regional district staff has passed the application to amend the water license on to the K’omoks First Nation and other affected groups, and also that the Merville Water Guardians will make a presentation at the same meeting.

The extent of the regional district’s authority in this issue is limited to its land use regulations. Does the proposed amended use meet current zoning laws? It cannot rule based on the larger issue of protecting groundwater supplies or other universal water issues.

MacKenzie is perfectly within his rights to pursue the use of the water license he was given by the provincial government.

That said, some serious questions should be asked of the LWS ministry why an application to amend his license was accepted and why his license remains valid nearly two years after not complying with the major condition of his original license.

And given the acceleration of climate change causing water crises all over the world, doesn’t it seem prudent, even urgent for our provincial government to put a moratorium on issuing any new groundwater extraction licenses and to suspend the licenses that haven’t been activated?

Knowing the difficult political and ethical discussions looming over provincial water policies, the government must initiate a full-scale review of our approach to water that reflects our new reality. To do otherwise will open a deluge of trouble.


There are numerous citizen action groups focused on water, including the Canadian Freshwater Alliance, which has supported the work of the Merville Water Guardians. There is also the Vancouver Island Water Watch Coalition. Here’s a link to some others.










Compared to today, five times as much land is likely to be under “extreme drought” by 2050.

Unless measures are taken, California will demand three times more groundwater than can be supplied over the next 100 years.

By 2035, the world’s energy consumption will increase by 35 percent, which in turn will increase water use by 15 percent according to the International Energy Agency.

In 2050 increased population will result in a 19% increase in agricultural water consumption.

Water demand is projected to grow by 55 percent by 2050 (including a 400-percent rise in manufacturing water demand).

According to satellite images, the Colorado River Basin has lost about 65 cubic kilometers (15.6 cubic miles) of water from 2004 to 2013. This is twice the amount stored in Lake Mead.

For decades the Ogallala Aquifer in the United States, one of the world’s largest aquifers, has tapped at rates thousands of times greater than it is being restored.

Over the past 40 years the world’s population has doubled and use of water has quadrupled.

According to the U.S. Intelligence Community Assessment of Global Water Security, by 2030 humanity’s “annual global water requirements” will exceed “current sustainable water supplies” by 40%.

By the year 2040 there will not be enough water in the world to quench the thirst of the world population and keep the current energy and power solutions going if we continue doing what we are doing today.

Source: Seametrics.com


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Comox Valley local government elections ramping up for Oct. 15 vote

Comox Valley voters will elect new councilors, mayors, regional district representatives, school board members and Island Trust reps on Oct. 15. Find out who’s running for what … and why. Decafnation returns to shine more light on local government issues and candidates

Island and BC coastal communities say “ban groundwater licenses”

Island and BC coastal communities say “ban groundwater licenses”

Bruce and Nicole Gibbons, photograph from their Facebook page

Island and BC coastal communities say “ban groundwater licenses”


Representatives of 53 municipalities on Vancouver Island and the British Columbia coast have endorsed a Comox Valley initiative for the province to stop issuing licenses for the bottling and commercial sale of groundwater.

Meeting this week in Powell River, the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities, which includes Comox Valley municipalities, passed the resolution unanimously.

The motion now moves to the Union of BC Municipalities for consideration at its annual meeting during the week of Sept. 23 in Vancouver. If it is supported by a majority of provincial municipalities, the resolution would be sent to the BC government for action.

Bruce Gibbons, of the Merville Water Guardians who originated the initiative, called the AVICC vote “a huge victory.”

“That (the unanimous vote) means that the 53 member communities of the AVICC unanimously support the ask of that resolution, and ultimately the protection of groundwater,” he said.

Gibbons praised Strathcona Regional District Director Brenda Leigh for championing the resolution. The SRD passed a similar motion in February requesting the province cease groundwater exports for commercial water bottling and bulk water sales.

“There are 29 regional districts in British Columbia, and a lot of them have been impacted by corporate extraction of their water supply,” said Leigh. “This is very important because the commodification of water in Canada means that we’re putting our water sources at risk.”

Groundwater extraction and water bottling rose to public attention last year at the Comox Valley Regional District. Merville landowners Scott MacKenzie and his wife, Regula Heynck, obtained a license from the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource and Rural Development (FLNRORD) to extract up to 10,000 litres per day or 3.65 million litres per year.

But the CVRD ultimately denied MacKenzie and Heynck an application to rezone their property on Sackville Road to conduct water bottling operations as the principal use of their property.

MacKenzie and Heynck then approached the Strathcona Regional District and were denied again.

The struggle between FLNRORD and the Comox Valley Regional District highlighted the friction between regional districts and the BC government over groundwater extraction for profit. The dispute began when FLNRORD MacKenzie a license without public notification and against the wishes of the CVRD and K’omoks First Nation.

But there was considerable public opposition to the license, and the CVRD denial effectively rendered the license unusable.

Leigh said her motion is rooted in general principle, and not in reaction to the CVRD dispute.

She says changes to the provincial Water Sustainability Act would negate the need for district-level efforts to control commercial water extraction with zoning decisions.

“First things first – we need to get the province on our side, and make sure they’re protecting our water. They have the power to do that.”

Some areas in Leigh’s district, which includes the north Oyster River area, rely totally on groundwater. In recent summers, drought conditions in August have forced the district to tap emergency reservoirs.

She anticipates climate change will exacerbate the problem in the future.

Watershed Sentinel Assistant Editor Gavin McRae contributed to this article



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Merville water bottling issue returns to the CVRD, highlights provincial water policies

Comox Valley man working AVICC to ban groundwater extraction

Photo Caption

Comox Valley man working AVICC to ban groundwater extraction


Vancouver Island Groundwater Rights Update Water rights advocate Bruce Gibbons is on a mission to end licensing of groundwater extraction for bottled water on Vancouver Island. And if that goes well, for all of BC.

Gibbons is burning shoe leather and working the phone to encourage all 53 districts and municipalities in the Association of Vancouver Island Coastal Communities (AVICC) to support an upcoming motion requesting the provincial government stop issuing well licenses to bottle water. If the motion passes, it heads to a province-wide vote at the Union of British Columbia Municipalities.

Gibbons said preventing groundwater bottling is a “no brainer” for many coastal communities, and several town councils have voted to support the AVICC motion on-the-spot after listening to his presentation.

The other half of Gibbons’ two-pronged approach is to ensure that there is a back-up if the AVICC motion fails. Gibbons discovered most towns need to amend the language of their bylaws if they want to prevent commercial bottling of groundwater, and he’s encouraging them
to do so

“When people wrote bylaws for their communities, they weren’t thinking of bottling water, so in most cases it’s not an actual conscious decision to allow it or not allow it,” he said. “[Communities] look at their bylaws and say ‘well it looks like if it came down to a decision, this
particular bylaw would allow it because it doesn’t expressly prohibit it,’ so they’re finding themselves in a position where they need to revise their bylaws to expressly prohibit bottled water.”

According to Gibbons, a dozen AVICC communities now have bylaws on the books that specifically forbid bottling groundwater. Twenty five AVICC communities have bylaws that doallow groundwater bottling (several of these are working to amend their bylaws). The bylaw
status of the remaining communities is unknown.

AVICC communities have been largely supportive of Gibbons urging a review of old bylaws. The exception has been Langford, where Gibbons said planning officials were uncooperative and appeared confused by his request.

“It was just a really weird experience with them. It wasn’t so much that they didn’t believe in what I was doing. They just didn’t get it.”
He’s shaken off the minor failure and said regardless which way the AVICC vote goes, water rights in BC are advancing, and his campaign is worthwhile.

“When you get involved in something like this, you realize how many people there are who really devote a lot of time and energy to protecting our environment and the world we live in. It takes a lot of time and energy, but it’s a very positive thing.”

Gavin McRae is a reporter and assistant editor for the Watershed Sentinel, which is a publishing partner of Decafnation


“Brooklyn Creek is a small creekshed whose hydrology and ecological services have been altered and degraded by decades of land use impacts,” — Tim Pringle in the preface to Assessing the Worth of Ecological Services Using the Ecological Accounting Process for Watershed Assessment: Brooklyn Creek Demonstration Application in the Comox Valley.




Ecological Accounting Process — “The EAP approach begins by first recognizing the importance of a stream in a natural state and then asking: how can we maintain those ecological values while allowing the stream to be used for drainage,” says Jim Dumont, Engineering Applications Authority with the Partnership for Water Sustainability in BC.


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Merville water bottling issue returns to the CVRD, highlights provincial water policies

The growing pains of updating BC’s water law

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The growing pains of updating BC’s water law


Watershed Sentinel writer Gavin MacRae examines how well the new Water Sustainability Act is working in the context of a water bottling controversy in Merville


BC’s original Water Act was a relic, drafted when Vancouver was still a fledgling city and before Canada’s first airplane took to the skies. It would govern water use in the province for over a century, until in 2016, a long overdue replacement arrived: the Water Sustainability Act (WSA). Conceived after a long period of public consultation, the WSA aims to “address the new challenges of the 21st century, including climate change, population growth and increasing pressure on water resources.”

This may come as surprise to residents of the community of Merville, on Vancouver Island. The hamlet has been roiling since residents learned of a commercial groundwater licence, granted by the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations & Rural Development (FLNRORD), to sell water from an aquifer beneath Merville.

The licence was approved without public notification, and against the wishes of K’omoks First Nation and the Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD). Amid public outcry over the ministry decision, the plan was halted when the CVRD denied a rezoning application by the well licence holder that would have allowed the proposed bottling business to process the water at the well site.

Opponents of the proposed business are concerned increased traffic and noise will ruin the bucolic ambiance of the small community, and worry about the effect the business could have on their own wells. Some residents said the business would set a precedent of for-profit extraction of a common resource, squandering precious groundwater when water scarcity from climate change looms.

An unassuming rural lot with a mobile home and a few scattered outbuildings is the epicentre of the controversy

Bruce Gibbons lives down the road from the proposed bottled water business, and is a vocal critic. He said residents were unaware of the licence until the rezoning decision came before the CVRD. After finding out about the well licence “through the neighbourhood grapevine,” Gibbons rallied neighbours to attend the zoning meeting. “We packed the CVRD board room and overflowed into the parking lot, on a Monday morning,” he said.

Since then, Gibbons has launched an unsuccessful appeal against the well licence, formed an advocacy group called the Merville Water Guardians, and had an independent hydro-geology consultant review the technical reports underpinning FLNRORD’s decision to approve the well.

The neighbourhood

An unassuming rural lot with a mobile home and a few scattered outbuildings is the epicentre of the controversy. It is the home of married couple Christopher MacKenzie and Regula Heynck, holders of the well licence.

MacKenzie was visibly frustrated talking about his so-far thwarted plans to operate the water business. He said social-media-fuelled fear from well-meaning but misguided activists factored in to his zoning defeat. He also viewed the denied rezoning as a pre-meditated campaign by officials at the regional district. “[The CVRD] came up with a plan to direct us down the wrong garden path, knowing all along we had the right zoning, that we exhausted all our avenues chasing a rezoning application.”

“We’re not the first people to do this,” said MacKenzie, “we’re just the same as everybody else, a young family with a little bit of luck, who have drilled water and want to offer it locally to poorly water-serviced communities.”

The 10,000 litre-per-day draw of well water (roughly equivalent to 10 homes) was negligible, said MacKenzie. “How are we going to drain the aquifer when we’re only allowed to take 10,000 litres, and there’s 34 trillion litres in there?”

In a media release, the K’omoks First Nation came out in opposition to the well licence, describing it as an “insult to our nation and people.” The Nation stated they were in a treaty process, negotiating for groundwater allocations in their traditional territories, and were opposed to the volume and indefinite term of the well licence.

The Nation was also “extremely disappointed” with the province’s failure to meaningfully consult with them. Chief Nicole Rempel said: “The province needs to smarten up, negotiate in good faith and in accordance with [the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples]”

Edwin Grieve, Director of Area C of the CVRD, said the licence was issued despite the district informing FLNRORD that the licence ran contrary to their official community plan and regional growth strategy.

MacKenzie said he now plans to apply for a different exception to his current zoning that would allow him to bottle the water on his land. “Not only is it a brand new application, we’re going in with the lawyers, and the [provincial] ombudsman, they’re all behind us.”

Dueling experts

In a document provided by MacKenzie, which he intends to submit to the CVRD for the zoning, a passage attributed to a hydrogeologist retained by Mackenzie read: “The proposed groundwater withdrawal is not a significant stress on the aquifer; no neighbouring wells will be significantly impacted by the proposed groundwater use.”

In contrast, the report by a consultant hydrogeologist commissioned by Bruce Gibbons to critique FLNRORD’s study of the well application was critical on several points. Chiefly, the report cast doubt on FLNRORD’s conclusion that the aquifer to be drilled is “not likely hydraulically connected to surface water,” citing the ministry’s lack of accounting for factors associated with connections between ground and surface water. The report also critically highlighted FLNRORD’s reliance on data from a monitoring well 12km away from the water bottling site, and 18-year-old data.

In the Merville case, FLNRORD has acted within their directive in granting the well license, as prescribed by the WSA. A worker following orders, FLNRORD has no mandate to inform the public of groundwater well applications. To qualify for an appeal of a well license, a complainant must be either an existing well holder or riparian owner (someone who owns waterfront property) whose water would be affected, or own land that would be physically disturbed.

Don’t throw the baby out with the groundwater

Stepping back from the play-by-play of raucous town hall meetings, quashed business plans, and dueling technical reports, the debate in Merville begs the question, how well is the WSA working?

Rosie Simms is a researcher at the University of Victoria’s POLIS project. She described some parts of the WSA as analogous to a promising but unfinished construction project. She said the potential for the WSA to provide “robust protections for fresh water” exists, but “until there’s further follow through, and actual work to get the most important parts of the act implemented and working on the ground, it’s still an incomplete process.”

Simms listed water sustainability plans, water objectives, and environmental flows provisions as tools for improving water governance available in the WSA, but currently underused. “Basically, there’s a whole lot of opportunity, it just needs to land,” she said. Despite that opportunity, there are still holes in the act. “There’s some major gaps. It’s silent on Aboriginal rights and title, which is a significant issue,” she said.

Emma Lui, a water campaigner for the Council of Canadians, said a major omission to the WSA is the recognition of water as a human right. Instead, the WSA relies on a gold-rush era rule called “first in time, first in right” for prioritizing water use. In the case of scarcity, first in time, first in right (mirrored by the phrase “first come, first served”) ignores the use of the water and rewards previously established water licences priority over subsequent licences.

First in time, first in right may have been a sensible principle for prospectors to follow a century ago, but Lui said it no longer makes sense. “When you have a system like first in time, first in right, you’re just not going to be able to prioritize water for communities,” she said.

But first in time, first in right, is not absolute. Simms said community water sustainability plans do have the power to change, cancel, or put conditions on water use for existing licences. During drought conditions, the province can also issue temporary orders to licence holders to reduce or stop flow to protect ecosystems and fish.

Lui said it’s pretty simple why such a dated principle made it into the new legislation. “I think the government was really not wanting to change the system in such a way that could threaten existing industries, like bottled water or fracking. But that’s really what needs to be done. We need to think about where water is being used and how that’s going to be impacting people and communities in the future.”

The Merville case demonstrates clearly that British Columbians are taking the governance of their water seriously. And rightly so, considering what’s at stake. For concerned citizens, water advocates, and commercial bottled water interests, the worst-case scenario is ultimately the same: running dry.

Gavin MacRae is the Watershed Sentinel’s new editorial assistant. He may be reached at editor@watershedsentinel.ca For other stories about environmental issues and their broader social implications go to the Watershed Sentinel website

Photo by George Le Masurier


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