Water licence issued for Pitt Meadows berry farm

Company is currently facing charges for diverting water without authority

The same pump that led to charges against members of Aquilini family will be used.

The same pump that led to charges against members of Aquilini family will be used.

Five companies that are part of the Aquilini Investment Group have been given a licence to pump water from the North Alouette River, even though they still face environmental charges.

The pump that will be used to move water under the new licence is the same one which led to the charges.

A short-term water permit was issued June 24 to numbered companies 374917 B.C. Ltd. to 374921 B.C. Ltd., inclusive for watering, harvesting, frost protection and storage purposes for cranberry fields in north Pitt Meadows.

Those same companies face six charges under the Water Act, including diverting water without authority, illegal use of water, and installing a pump into the river without authorization. The charges were filed in Port Coquitlam Provincial Court last February in connection with the 2009 installation of a 45-centimetre-wide water intake pipe in the North Alouette River.

In total, 11 charges were filed under the Water Act, the Fisheries Act and Dike Maintenance Act. The counts, regulatory offences rather than criminal matters, are filed against five individuals, two companies, as well as the six numbered companies, by the Ministry of Environment’s conservation officer service.

Named in the charges are Elisa Aquilini, Francesco Aquilini, Paulo Aquilini, Roberto Aquilini and Richard Matis, as well as CPI – Cranberry Plantation, and Global Coin Corp. Their next court date is July 12 in Port Coquitlam.

Environmental activist Jack Emberly said the charges should be dealt with before the government issues more water permits.

“I don’t think this licence should be granted until this case is resolved and we have a system in place that monitors how much they’ve used.”

But Tim Bennett, with the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, said Tuesday that the court proceedings and the application are independent.

“If there was ongoing diversion of use, then that may change us looking at the licence.”

He said the Aquilini group has complied with requests to do several environmental impact assessments and had disconnected the pump. Bennett confirmed that the existing pump will be used to haul water and that it was left in the river because it could have caused more environmental damage by removing it.

Golden Eagle Group, also part of the Aquilini Investment Group, which owns the Vancouver Canucks, said in 2009 that it pumped water from the river briefly to save young cranberry plants during a dry spring. It had applications pending for that use.

Bennett said the new permit is stricter than usual because it requires an environmental monitor to observe the site and that Geri Partnership, also part of the Aquilini group, must provide monthly reports of the daily water volumes diverted.

“That is definitely more prescriptive than would be typical on one of these kinds of permits. That level of reporting wouldn’t be normal.”

The company’s consultant prepared the environmental assessment, which was reviewed by the ministry and forwarded for comment by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. But the federal department didn’t respond.

“We’ll make a decision in the absence of a response,” Bennett said.

“I wouldn’t have expected to see a red flag from DFO [Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans], but you never know.”

Amanda Crowston, executive-director with the Alouette River Management Society, wonders why a new water permit was issued while charges are still before the court.

But she likes some of the conditions that have been added to the permit, such as the requirement to only take water when river levels are high, at 0.6 metres above sea level.

“We are pleased that it’s being handled in such a way that there will be more reporting and accountability.”

That could serve as a model for future licences, she added.

Data collected by the environmental consultant should also be accessible to the public, said.

“Accountability is key here.”

One of the conditions says the monitor can stop the pump if it’s too risky and that any violations of the conditions have to be reported to the ministry.

Emberly also said the requirement for a monitor “sounds like a move in the right direction,” but also wants testing of water that’s released back into the river after it has been used for farming purposes.

“We have to know that the water is pure and there’s nothing harmful to the habitat or fish. If these things happen, we’ll be one step forward, knowing that our environment and health are safer.”

The water permit was issued for specific periods, beginning Sept. 1 for flood harvesting and frost protection.

Again, for 221 acre feet, for watering between April 1 and Sept. 30.

An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre one foot, or 33 centimetres deep.

More water is allowed to be pumped for storage purposes over the next 12 months.

The Water Management branch of the new Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations issued the licences. That replaces the former Water Stewardship Division in the Ministry of Environment.