Nanaimo could face trouble if water agreement is not reached quickly: Ruttan

Snuneymuxw plan legal action; water-sharing deal with Harmac could be held up 

Robert Barron, Nanaimo Daily News 

Nanaimo River water rights in dispute.

Nanaimo Mayor John Ruttan says that if an agreement is not reached soon that would allow work to move forward to increase the city’s water capacity, Nanaimo could face problems keeping up with the water requirements of a growing city.

However, Ruttan said a final water-sharing agreement between the city and the Harmac pulp mill, one that would exclude the Snuneymuxw First Nation, is not imminent despite the urgency of the situation.

The Snuneymuxw are preparing to launch a series of legal actions, targeting the province, the city and Harmac over a water-sharing agreement being negotiated that would see the city acquire much of Harmac’s water licences for the Nanaimo River.

Snuneymuxw Chief Doug White said the First Nation’s rights to fisheries and water under the Douglas Treaty, signed in 1854, extend to the whole Nanaimo River watershed and that the water licences issued to Harmac more than 50 years ago are in direct violation of the treaty.

White said discussions have been held during the past three years with Harmac and the city in efforts to develop a water-sharing agreement that would be fair to all, but no solutions have been found.

“Water is of paramount interest to everyone in the region and is the fundamental resource for all people,” White said.

“How water is used, allocated and accessed directly relates to our treaty relationship with the Crown and the jurisdiction of the Snuneymuxw that is confirmed in that treaty. Harmac’s water licences are in violation of our treaty and they have had huge impacts on the Snuneymuxw. We will stand for it no longer.”

Talks have been ongoing for years over joint use of Harmac’s water systems by the city, the Snuneymuxw and the mill to meet current and increased water demands in the future.

Harmac, which uses up to 7.5 million litres of water a day for its milling activities when in full operation with three production lines, has its own dam, piping and water reserves from Fourth Lake and water licences that far exceed the mill’s needs.

However, White said the Snuneymuxw have been excluded from much of the negotiations between the city and Harmac and the band is now moving forward with legal action to ensure their treaty rights will be respected.

“Here I am 50 years after Harmac’s water licences were granted on a 40-acre reserve trying to develop economic opportunities on the little piece of property left to us,” he said.

“This is not a small issue for us and we need to exercise our treaty rights to ensure that we can have economic opportunities and residential development to help us move forward.”

Ruttan said “it’s hard to speculate” what would happen if the Snuneymuxw moved forward with court action.

“Litigation is expensive and time-consuming and we’re certainly not interested in going that route,” he said.

“We’d much rather have these issues settled through negotiation rather than confrontation.”


20 million The number of cubic metres of water the City of Nanaimo will demand by 2020.

$75 million Cost of a new dam to help meet the growing need.

7.5 million Number of litres of water a day Harmac uses for its milling activities when in full operation.

$10-million Amount the city offered in 2008 to secure Harmac’s water rights to the Nanaimo River.

$120,000 The amount the province receives each year from Harmac in exchange for the water licences.

40% The amount of water Harmac uses of the total it is allowed under its licences.

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