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.