While you were busy filling up the pool and taking those extra-long showers to cool off during this recent hot, dry summer, the ground outside your front door was gasping for water. The word “drought” was thrown around. Were you feeling a little guilty, but thinking, “I’ll sneak out to water the lawn after dark anyway”?

And then a news story landed that kicked up the drought discussion to a very different scale: Toronto-based mega-corp Nestlé Canada Inc. had Big Footed the Township of Centre Wellington in Ontario, outbidding it for a well owned by Middlebrook Water Co. in Aberfoyle, Ont. That led to the revelation that Nestlé and other water bottlers pay the Province of Ontario only $3.71 per million litres of water. And they siphon off millions of litres of water.

Outrage was in the air. One Toronto-based weekly ran a graphic detailing the sweet deals that 10 companies withdrawing water from beneath Ontario communities have made with the province. The quantity that each “water baron” (as they were dubbed) is allowed is mind-boggling. Nestlé alone rings in at 8.3 million litres daily. The smallest company, based in Hastings County, is allowed 288,153 litres daily.

That’s not just bottled water for Toronto’s city sippers. Nestlé will turn some of its water withdrawals into soda pop and other useless confections. Worse, some bottlers will be shipping the water far away from its source. Exporting bottled water has been a lucrative business model ever since Canadian billionaire David Gilmour set up Fiji Water in 1996, selling it in 2004 for a reported US$63-million.

All along, we thought that the plastic bottle was the natural environment’s enemy. (Well, it is.) Now, the water in it, which we just assumed would be an endless resource, turns out to be where we need to direct our attention.

Out of sight, in the hinterlands, water battles are being fought anywhere there is a freshwater aquifer because there is so much money at stake and, one could argue, potential jobs. (The Nestlé plant in Aberfoyle accounts for 300 jobs.) And it’s not just bottlers; they are merely this year’s whipping boy. In Prince Edward Island, the government has been criticized for accepting a $1-million donation to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown from J.D. Irving Ltd.-owned Cavendish Farms. There is concern that the donation will be a factor in whether or not the government lifts its moratorium on deepwater wells for agricultural irrigation. Potatoes are as thirsty as humans.

Indeed, certain fruits and vegetables are such water guzzlers that on a large scale, they can have an extraordinary impact. Almond production in California has been Environmental Enemy No. 1 over the past few years, after reports that local almond farmers use 1.1 trillion gallons of water annually to grow their trees, driving the water table down by 50 feet.

Toronto has been urging residents to use less water for many years, and the message has been getting through. Stats pulled from one online media outlet show that, despite sneaky midnight raids with sprinklers, water consumption is dropping. Average residential water use has declined between 2006 and 2013 (to 283 cubic metres per year from 315 cubic metres). But we can’t sit smugly in our little urban island forever.

Canadian consumers are liberal with water. And industries need it. But there are limits: the province should step in more vigorously to make sure that both consumers and businesses have the water they need in the future. Let’s price water suitably – and manage it better.

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