Quebec has lifted the veil of secrecy from the province’s largest water consumers, revealing that billions of liters of water are withdrawn each year by the mining and metallurgical industries, as well as by pulp and paper manufacturing. .
The data, which includes records going back a decade, also lists golf clubs, ski hills, water bottling plants and food processors among companies that take in tens of millions, sometimes hundreds of millions of liters per year.
The records do not specify the quality or quantity of water taken by each organization and released into the environment after use.
Although Quebec is abundant in fresh water, three percent of the world’s renewable energy supplysouthern regions that rely on groundwater for agriculture and drinking water are often more vulnerable to shortages.
Calls for more transparency have increased in recent years after cities in the south of the province faced water shortages and, in some cases, were even forced to restrict water consumption.
“This information is very useful, it is essential,” said Sarah Dorner, professor of civil engineering at Polytechnique Montréal.
Dorner said the data can help municipalities better understand what activities could impact water availability or quality in their area, and take them into account when planning for future risks.
The City of Montreal consumes the most water
Overall, in terms of total withdrawals reported in Quebec, the City of Montreal was the largest consumer of water in 2022, the most recent year available in the dataset. The city of more than two million people said it had withdrawn 559.2 billion liters of water for various services, including its water system, botanical gardens and recreational activities.
When it comes to commercial and industrial water use, a CBC News analysis found that mining and metals giant Rio Tinto comes out on top.
When Rio Tinto Iron and Titanium’s water withdrawals are combined with those of Rio Tinto Alcan, the company reported using a total of 72.5 billion liters of water across its operations in the province. in 2022.
This amount of water would fill 60 billion Stanley Cups (the water bottle, not the trophy).
The province’s Environment Ministry released the data as part of its water regulation update, following a campaign promise of the Coalition Avenir Québec government.
The changes came into effect in January, meaning water samples are now published for organizations that use at least 75,000 liters of water at least one day per year. This ceiling will be reduced to 50,000 liters per day in 2026.
Quebec is the third province to make water sampling public, after Ontario and Prince Edward Island. Some other provinces, such as Alberta, publish water consumption by sector, but do not break it down by individual organization.
“We need every province to do the same thing, because Canada needs to find ways to regulate our water,” said Soula Chronopoulos, president of Aqua Action, a non-profit organization based in Montreal.
Chronopoulos, who advocates for the protection of fresh water across Canada, said transparency is key.
“To be frank, the climate crisis is a water crisis, and water constraints are going to impact global, national and regional economies,” she said. “Our future economy will be water limited. This is what we are experiencing and I think we have to face it.”
Increased fees for water bottling and manufacturing
Quebec also increased water charges and created a Blue Fund that will use the money to finance projects including flood prevention, ecosystem conservation and municipal water management.
Businesses that use water but discharge it into the environment, such as pulp and paper and mining, will see their rates increase from $2.50 per million liters of water to $35 per million liters.
Companies that incorporate water into a final product, such as the cement industry or the food industry, will go from $70 per million liters of water to $150 per million liters, while companies that produce bottled water will have to pay the most: $500 per million liters. .
The province has set aside a total of $500 million over five years for the Blue Fund as part of its latest budget, part of which should come from royalties. The fees apply to water bottling companies, mines, quarries, oil and gas extraction, and most manufacturing activities.
Rio Tinto and the pulp and paper industry respond
In an email response to CBC News, Rio Tinto said it already independently publishes its water consumption data online and that its water consumption reflects the scale of its operations in Quebec.
Jean-François Samray, president of the Quebec Forest Industry Council, said more than 90 percent of the water used by his industry is treated and released into the environment.
Samray, whose council represents the province’s lumber, pulp, paper and cardboard companies, said the industry has reduced its water use by two-thirds since 1981.
“The fact is, there’s no more low-hanging fruit. We’ve already reduced what we can. We recycle the water multiple times,” he said.
Although pulp and paper manufacturers could reduce their water consumption by replacing water-based cooling methods with the type of cooling used in a refrigerator, Samray said that to achieve this they would have to increase their water consumption. ‘electricity.
“To have more electricity, we need a government decree telling Hydro-Québec that we must provide new capacity,” he declared.
Rising water charges represent additional financial pressure compared to Ontario, he said, where the pulp, paper and cardboard industry is exempt.
Water samples are self-declared
Although the mining, steel, and pulp and paper industries use a lot of water overall, much of this water is typically returned to the original source.
“The main concern is with sampling where the water is then incorporated into some product,” said Dorner of Polytechnique Montréal. “It would be nice to know how much is released into the environment and in what quality.”
The volumes of water withdrawn are self-declared by the organizations. In some cases, water consumption may be based on estimates rather than actual measurements. Actually, Quebec legislation allows for a 25 percent margin of error in reported monthly volumes.
Dorner, who specializes in water protection and quality, said having data is a good thing, but added that “it might also be nice to make sure the data quality is sufficient.”
Rébecca Pétrin, executive director of the environmental group Eau Secours, one of the groups that has been fighting for years to get the withdrawal data released, said it was a “big victory” to see the numbers released.
“It’s (now) much easier to say, ‘OK, we’ll have a dry summer, so we need to reduce consumption – who can easily reduce their consumption?'”
That’s a good first step, Pétrin said, but she would also like to see caps on maximum water volumes in cases where watersheds could be affected.
“Some mining activities take place in the north, and there is a lot of water there… but there are factories in southern Quebec, agricultural areas, cities and municipalities that have realized that they lacked water during the summer,” she said. said.
While much of Canada has been immune to water problems compared to other parts of the world facing extreme droughts and shortages, freshwater advocate Chronopoulos said that t’s about time the country started thinking more about its water use.
“We are fortunate to have so much water, but we can’t take that for granted,” she said.