Sunday, July 12, 2015

More thoughts on Aquifers, Shills and the Commoditization of Groundwater

Late last week I posted my thoughts on Aquifers, Drought and the Nestlé water bottling plant in Hope and the response has been overwhelming. My Twitter and Facebook feeds exploded and I was even interviewed by a local radio station CKNW (a recording of the interview is provided here) on the topic. As part of the furor I received a lot of interesting information and was the target of a lot of misinformation, the most prominent of which I will address in this blog post: 

Conflicts of Interest:
Let’s start with the easiest one first. I am not in the pay of Nestlé, no one in my family earns any income of any sort from Nestlé and I have received absolutely no compensation for my post or my media appearance. The suggestion that I am a “shill” or “in the pay of Nestlé” is an expected response to my blog postings. So expected that I have previously addressed the “shill gambit” in a post titled “On “Bullies”, “shills” and using labels to shut down legitimate debate”. My graduate research was on the use of scientific data in environmental decision-making and while I currently work in the field of contaminated sites I retain a personal interest in my earlier field of research. When I see an environmental debate being overwhelmed by bad or incomplete data I have a tendency to step in. This case meets that bill admirably. 
More on Aquifers:
The biggest bit of misinformation I have had repeated back to me again and again is how the use of water in Hope will somehow effect the rest of us or future generations. In my earlier introduction to aquifers I pointed out that aquifers come in two major types: confined and unconfined aquifers. A confined aquifer is water trapped in permeable rock or porous materials (like gravels and sands) that is confined on both the top and the bottom by an impermeable layer (typically either bedrock or very tight layers of silts and clays). Confined aquifers are typically under pressure (generally artesian in nature) and are sometimes referred to as “fossil waters” as they typically represent waters that have taken generations to build up and once depleted can take generations to replenish.  The use of these fossil waters is an ongoing concern and has led to tremendous changes in groundwater conditions in much of the Southern U.S.  The use of these fossil waters must be monitored in the same way that other non-renewable resources must be monitored because once extracted these waters will not be readily replaced in our lifetimes. Unconfined aquifers on the other hand are made up of similar porous materials but are not confined vertically. They are in contact with the surface via the unsaturated zone which goes up to the ground surface. The groundwater surface in an unconfined aquifer is often called a water table and the water table can rise and fall depending on how much water is added via precipitation, or the migration from surface water bodies, and how much is drawn off by humans or runs off, also via surface water bodies like lakes , rivers and streams. 

The Lower Mainland is dominated by unconfined aquifers which are used by the inhabitants of the Fraser Valley including much of Langley, Abbotsford, Chilliwack and Hope. The important thing to understand about these aquifers is that they are mostly hydraulically isolated from each other. You can think of these aquifers like a bunch of underground swimming pools full of sand/gravel. Take the water from one and you don’t affect its neighbours. Each aquifer has its own source (a watershed) and must be treated as an individual entity. The aquifer used by Nestlé is a particular type that is hydraulically connected both to a watershed and to a lake: Kawkawa Lake. This is important because unlike many aquifers in the region, as water is drawn from the Kawkawa aquifer (by Nestlé) the aquifer is refreshed by the Lake, and the corresponding watershed. Thus the condition of the aquifer can be inferred by the conditions in the Lake. As long as the Lake level remains relatively stable the aquifer can also be inferred to be relatively stable. The Kawkawa aquifer drains to the Fraser River via Sucker Creek and then the Coquihalla River. As long as Sucker Creek continues to flow then we know that the aquifer is not only doing well but has an excess of water.  As I noted in my previous post, the amount of water extracted by Nestlé is equivalent to about 72 seconds worth of water flow from the Fraser River as it passes Hope. I cannot emphasize this enough: the operation of the Nestlé plant in Hope no way affects the larger water supply of the Fraser Valley or the even larger water supply of the Lower Mainland. If Nestlé stopped operating (and put its 75 employees out of work and stopped paying municipal taxes) would there be more water for the rest of us? Absolutely not. Kawkawa Lake drains its excess water into the Fraser River, which simply drains into the Strait of Georgia. Neither the Fraser River at Hope nor the Strait of Georgia are particularly short of water even in the driest of years.

The Water Sustainability Act:
As I mentioned briefly, the BC government is in the process of modernizing its regulatory environment for groundwater and the centerpiece of this process is the Water Sustainability Act which is intended to provide an improved and modernized regulatory control over our groundwater resources. The government has been in the process of rolling out the Act and its associated regulations and has been engaging stakeholders on a variety of topics.  One of the big topics has been on water pricing. The emphasis of the water pricing regime continues to be on a user-pay principal where the water users pay for the management of the regulatory regime only. My understanding is that the intention is not to turn a profit but to pay for the process of regulating groundwater and ultimately for mapping and tracking our groundwater resource use.  As I have written, tweeted and said on radio, the first step in regulating a resource is to understand its extent and capacity. Historically we as British Columbians have done a poor job at monitoring the use of our groundwater and the fact that the government is now taking the step of filling in our data gaps on the issue is a cause for congratulations and not condemnation. To my understanding British Columbia is leading the country in this regard and perhaps the naysayers should do a bit more research before going all partisan on this important non-partisan pursuit.

Commoditization of Groundwater:
The biggest complaint amongst both my friends and my detractors has been on the pricing of water. As I describe above, the government is talking to stakeholders about this topic but there is an important point that the purveyors of that petition demanding that “BC Charge a fair rate for the use of groundwater”. Ironically, the purveyors of the petition might end up getting exactly the opposite of what they want by charging for groundwater. Under the current regulatory regime, groundwater is not treated as a commodity. All users access groundwater for free. As I describe above, the planned pricing is for regulatory purposes and not for profits. As described by Judi Tyabji (and provided to me by Randy Rinaldo @RanRinBC) on her Facebook Page, the biggest protection our groundwater has in a North America dominated by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is the fact that we have not treated groundwater as a commodity. To the best of my knowledge, once you turn groundwater into a commodity you put it under NAFTA and instead of it being regulated by the government of British Columbia, it gets regulated under NAFTA. That means that foreign governments and businesses can sue to get control over access to these groundwater resources and can demand a payout if they are denied access. Right now the government can still regulate the use of groundwater. If we turn groundwater into a commodity by pricing it competitively we run the risk of losing that ability. They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Wouldn’t it be ironic if by signing that petition the petitioners actually managed to force control of our provincial resources to a foreign dominated trade commission or tribunal?

Author's note: some people have disagreed with my interpretation of NAFTA but none have yet explained a technical basis for their disagreement. I welcome any opportunity to learn more about the topic and would welcome any corrections in the comments.


  1. Blair King Not buying your blogspot excuses. I looked you up and you have no listed degrees much less a Ph.D. as a chemist. A Blogspot IS NOT a scientific publication - any idiot can create a blog. Further your claim that aquifers are not linked to water tables is a lie: "an aquifer is an underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock, rock fractures or unconsolidated materials (gravel, sand, or silt) from which groundwater can be extracted using a water well" Aquifers are BOTH "confined" and unconfined. I doubt that you have real independent scientific testing done to prove that the aquifers you are talking about are truly and completely confined. Never mind your self serving ego blog; cite some real scientific papers (i.e. NOT government or corporate reports by non-experts). I noted that you have listed yourself as working in conjuction with BC Ministry of Environment’s Director of Waste Management - Clearly that is a conflict of interest and the readers here should know that you are paid for your statements. Sincerely yours, Peter H. Warkentin, B.Sc. (Honours), M.Sc., Ph.D. (Physics, Biomaterials)

  2. Peter:

    As you appear to be incapable of carrying out even a cursory online search let me help you out:

    A link to my accepted Dissertation:
    A link to the PHD Geneology Project:
    A link to the College of Applied Biology of BC:
    A link to the Association of the Chemical Profession of BC:

    Note the CAB and ACPBC confirm qualifications before certifying a professional.

    As for my relationship with the BCMOE, perhaps you can take a read here: to understand how Professionals in BC relate to our provincial government.

  3. You are unpublished in any journals and therefore I find your dissertation* only an inside job nor are you a proper intellectual. Your BLOG opinions are worth the paper they are written on (i.e. worthless). I'm glad you aren't a real scientist.
    I've seen your attacks on others opinions. I regard you as a new class of Blogger: A Denier Denier (not a typo), under the pay of corporations and governments.
    Asd for your BCMOE affiliation: "Wow you're on an Roster with an independent self appointed group with whom anybody can apply for a membership - another group with no scientific validity.

    *Few people can find it using your reference method: references are void of any real information except the name and ISBN. Send me a copy of your"dissertation" and the name of your professor.

  4. Wow! Someone is actually prepared to prove Blair's point that the "anti"s will resort to shouting "shill" before they even begin to look at the evidence!

    No doubt the attacker is fully credentialed, as it would be crass to attack another person without knowing the matter at hand better.

    The idea that such a matter would be discussed by peer review is absurd. By the time the papers came out the drought will be over and the issue died away.

    This idea that democratic discussions should be conducted only by experts, away from public eyes, is getting to be an increasingly stale line or argument. Voters are entitled to be given information, and are able to assess the information themselves. This squeezing out of any debate shows the anti-democratic leanings of far too many environmentalists.

    No doubt pwarkentin2 will denounce any and all reports by the likes of Greenpeace -- or in this case SumOfUs -- as being by "another group with no scientific validity".

    1. Pathetic response Mark. Good science can only be validated by peer review. All good research is years old at the point of publication, if the researcher has done his work properly. And peer-review means that it has been validated and accepted by others in the field. If not then it is scientifically meaningless (remember cold-fusion) That's why you are a layman and good scientists are professionals. So your remark only demonstrates that you are totally unqualified to comment on real science and lack any credibility. As for science limiting democratic discussion: that is total nonsense and ignorant bullshit as this conversation manifestly demonstrates. But I have noticed that your comment has not one actual fact. If it wasn't for people like Harper destroying science in Canada you would have more, not less, information. As for Greenpeace et al. They are still required to justify themselves based on verifiable facts and often do. Regardless, everyone is entitled to even layman's opinion, as is yours, and should expect to be challenged. As for the water problem going away: tell that to California. I think that you are in for a shock in the next few decades. In conclusion, I regard your comment as another example of a "Denier Denier", just trying to shout down others who have more credible arguments.

    2. Peter,

      Your lack of reading comprehension is almost humorous and if I hadn’t looked you up I would have guessed you were a fabrication. As you seem unable to comprehend, the CSAP Society is an arms-length body formed to perform the role of reviewing environmental certification applications under the Contaminated Sites Regulation. The organization was formed to take the weight off our overworked Ministry by allowing a group of highly-skilled professionals to make recommendations to the Ministry regarding selected types of environmental certifications. Membership is tightly regulated with members requiring 10 years of direct, documented experience in a decision-making role under the Contaminated Sites Regulation to even apply for Membership. Once you have met the practical experience hurdle you are then subjected to a series of technical and regulatory exams before being accepted. Our output is fully reviewed and we are subject to regular audits. CSAP was deemed the best of the professional reliance regimes by the Environmental Law Center of the University of Victoria report on the topic. (

      As for peer review, you once again betray an incredibly narrow world-view which is reflected in much of your commentary. There is an entire world of peer reviewed work outside of the academic press, which you apparently believe represents the sole form of transfer of information. My research was directed at a regulatory level and the fruits of my research were incorporated into systems implemented by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the BC Ministry of Environment. My post-graduate work has been in the private sector where the results tend to be proprietary although my regulatory reporting is fully accessible under access to information requests if you desperately needed to get them. Since I work in a field where the release of the results can potentially cause financial harm some of the information will be redacted prior to its release.

    3. And peer-review means that it has been validated and accepted by others in the field.

      No it doesn't mean that at all. It means that the journal in question has accepted the paper, and a couple of people in the field have said they don't have significant issues with it.

      I present to you the journal "Homeopathy", which is published by Elsevier (a reputed publisher) and is peer reviewed. Nonetheless, pretty much every article in it is total and utter rot as science. Peer review is not even remotely a check on the scientific accuracy of a paper.

      As for Greenpeace et al. They are still required to justify themselves based on verifiable facts.

      No they aren't. Because when people like Blair do just that, you shout them down as shills.

    4. Peter,

      Under the CSAP model I have the toughest level of peer review available. Every report has to pass muster and a set number of reports undergo random audits. Fail in an audit and your Membership can be withdrawn. Show me any academic job where getting your paper rejected by a journal was enough to cause you to lose your livelihood.

  5. Nothing nestlé does is good. If you ate nothing but nestlé products the rest of your life you would die faster.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. W, like many you fail to understand the point of my blog posts. I am not saying that Nestle is good or bad, I am saying that environmental decision-making should be driven by good data/information. My interest is to bring reliable data to the table so that it can be used to make informed decisions. It is a truism in the policy world that when you rely on bad data you almost always ends up making bad decisions. Too many of our environmental debates are dependent on bad or incomplete data, I like to help address that issue when I can.

  8. Blair. i never doubted your science and never said you were wrong therefore i did not fail to understand anythng. I quote you "nestlé may not be the bad guy they are portrayed to be." so they "may not" be...good for you. i agree with you about the aquifers in british columbia and the mis-information that is often times propogated on social media and everyones emotions get in a is some data for you to analyze

  9. Note to commenters: The moderating platform for this blog does not allow for the modification or editing of comments. The moderator on this blog does not allow personal insults or swearing in comments and due to the limitations of the moderating platform all comments that involve personal insults or contain swearing are simply deleted.

  10. However . Blair reserves the right to insult people under a veil of euphemism and cynicism

  11. Don't fret sport. That's my last post. Good game, good game.

  12. Blair, I have been saying this regarding water and NAFTA for years and specifically more recently in response to the Nestle issues, to mostly deaf ears of course. Water cannot be a commodity for us to keep control of it. If we lose control of the water, guess what pipelines we will be looking at next.... You got it... water to California.

    As for NAFTA, this is a real threat to our water, if we don't tread carefully. Anyone that does not think so, really needs to research this. Back when NAFTA (and the original FTA) was negotiated water was specifically excluded as long as Canada did not "turn the water into a "good"". It is a slippery WTO/GATT/NAFTA slope we would be on if we started charging "market" rates for water. It would only take one ruling against us at WTO/GATT/NAFTA to ensure our water gets sent south by the tanker load.

    Best way to protest is to drink your tap water and not the bottle variety... Not that I don't drink bottled water or agree/disagree with our premier.